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31 Oct 2006 : Column 26WH—continued

By the age of four, a professional’s child will have heard 50 million words. A working-class child will have heard 30 million. A child on welfare will have heard less than a quarter of the words heard by a professional’s child; 12 million words will have been addressed to the child on welfare.

Hart and Risley were amazed at how well their measures of accomplishments at age three predicted language skills at the ages of nine to 10. They concluded that school had added little value after the age of three; it was already too late. That is another argument for early intervention.

Dr. Paul Thompson of Nottingham university, once a local head teacher, summed up the situation:

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Nottingham city council’s children’s services director, Edwina Grant, who with her team and with teachers battles these problems every day, says:

That is the raw material that people have to deal with in trying to make progress on educational attainment. When I started, I intended us to have a debate on reading recovery, but I have come rapidly to a different debate about early intervention, for the two are inextricably linked.

Some of the interventions needed are obvious. Locally, poor parenting skills can be addressed by early intervention with mothers of children aged zero to two. An example is the nurse-family partnership, which is being promoted, thankfully, through the Government’s social exclusion policy. Our local education authority and the local strategic partnership, One Nottingham, which I chair, have together put an extra £1 million into the teaching of social behaviour in primary schools, building on social and emotional aspects of learning—the SEAL programme—which is rolling out and will soon go to secondary level, I am glad to say. That will help to equip individuals to choose when they have children and, when they themselves are parents, enable them to raise their nought to five-year-olds to be school-ready, rather than starting 10 paces behind the rest.

There is a distinct lack of joining up, however. I am told that, locally, the number of health visitors has dropped to its lowest since 1998. Starting pay for newly qualified health visitors is now set lower than it was previously, and there will be no incentive for nurses with valuable experience to consider entering that part of the profession and working with young people and their parents. Health visitors, community nurses and midwives are keys to the parenting agenda. They have the skills to make assessments of families and their needs. They introduce the Bookstart scheme to families and encourage parents to spend time with their children introducing them to books. For some families in my constituency, that may not be a priority. Domestic violence and child protection feature highly in Nottingham, North, and much of the health visitors’ time is taken up with addressing those issues. That is all the more reason why they should have some focus and some assistance when it comes to the development of parenting skills

Other bits of joining up are necessary. Adult basic skills must be properly funded by the Learning and Skills Council. In Nottingham, we must resist the short-sighted proposals to close and asset-strip the only further education base in the UK’s most educationally deprived constituency—my own, Nottingham, North. We must link community-based training much more to our local learning centres. Sure Start, which has been an absolute boon for people who live on the outer estates that I represent, must none the less reach out even further to the hardest-to-contact families and the youngest children.

Nationally, the Government have to realise the destructive impact of their target culture. Forcing a chronically educationally underachieving city such as
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Nottingham to conform to middle England targets and outcomes means that only symptoms, rather than causes, are addressed, so even short-term improvements are not built on firm and sustainable foundations. In those circumstances, the very lowest achieving children do not receive the necessary attention. The focus can be on getting more children who are just a little behind up to the Government level 4 target, leaving the long tail of strugglers to sink. The day job then becomes administering the consequences of underachievement, rather than attacking its origins.

In the era of the local Government White Paper, the Lyons review and, possibly, a change of Prime Minister and new ideas, we need locally to have the ambition and freedom to look those problems in the eye and not be looking over our shoulder for central Government approval. In that context, I have a request for my hon. Friend the Minister. I would appreciate knowing the 2006 results for the UK for 11-year-olds getting below level 3 in English nationally, for all children and for boys and girls separately, and the results by local authority. I do not expect the Minister to carry that information around with him, but if he will ask his officials to write to me, I shall be most grateful. I must put on the record the assistance that I have had from and the interaction that I have had with the excellent officials who have worked in the Department. Like all of us, they are trying to find ways to solve these problems.

The information that I have asked for does not relate to an official target, yet it is vital for the life chances of youngsters in my constituency. It is not a box to tick—I am not looking for that—but it should be a spur to effective local partnership between our local society, parents and children and the voluntary sector. In the short term, however, we need to add reliable, effective, early interventions to tackle children’s reading difficulties. That is why I have sought this debate. For many middle England areas, the work that I am concerned with might be dismissed as schemes or projects, but for a deprived area such as my constituency it is bedrock policy—a prerequisite for achievement and, beyond the education silo, a prerequisite for an effective civil society too.

What can we do? The Government are doing excellent work to reduce the number of children who struggle with reading, by improving general classroom teaching. I always count blessings in this context, including the attention being paid to class sizes, improvements in attainment levels and the extraordinary change in the numbers achieving five A to C grades; they are very welcome and the Government should be praised for what they have done. I make a point of giving that praise, having to date made some criticisms.

The city council in Nottingham is also already doing great work. At the foundation stage great progress is being made with the early reading development pilot, with the result that 56 schools are now involved in the communication, language and literacy development programmes. At key stage 1 Nottingham city is one of the few councils to show progress in reading. At key stage 2 it has made a 4 per cent. gain at level 4. In addition, the intensive support programme and the supporting progress initiative have made substantial gains. The family literacy scheme is doing superb work
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with parents; literacy volunteers are giving immense support; the Place2B is giving parents an understanding of their children’s reading needs. Other innovations include the “mega read” project, linking primaries, secondaries and library services, and the web-based reading resource that will be sent out to all secondary schools in the next two years. All that tremendous effort from the LEA and teachers will make a serious difference to youngsters in my constituency.

The children whom I am most concerned about, however, are those who on arrival at school are referred to in report after report by Ofsted as being unable to speak in a sentence or recognise a letter or number, who do not understand what “word”, “letter” or “page” mean, and who cannot concentrate in a busy classroom. Those children need full-time, professional reading recovery. It gets 84 per cent. of children back to national average reading levels and sustains that progress. Several parliamentary colleagues present are no doubt from areas where the scheme has been used very successfully. Perhaps I may give an advertisement, since I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is in her place, for a reception about reading recovery, which is to be held in Parliament next Tuesday; and perhaps if the Minister has not been invited he will still be able to pop in, with other Front Benchers, to add weight to the great work that is being done by the organisation concerned.

“Every child a reader” projects are operating in many parts of the UK and, indeed, throughout the English-speaking world. They involve a short-term intervention for six-year-olds. Children receive daily 30-minute one-to-one lessons for up to 20 weeks, from a specially trained teacher. The children’s parents or carers are also engaged to support their children’s learning. The approach is one of the cheapest innovations that we can provide. It is an inoculation against a lifetime of illiteracy. Cheap? To give an illiterate, alienated, disruptive 16-year-old a place in a secure unit for a year costs £250,000. Giving that same child, earlier on, by reading recovery, the talent to read—to access the whole world through reading—costs £2,500, so 100 youngsters could be given national level reading ability for the price of picking up the pieces for one child who perhaps did not get the intervention that they needed when they needed it.

Reading recovery is not an easy option. It requires initial training for reading recovery teachers, which takes a year. That training continues, so that the teachers can stay at the same high level of skills. I do not disparage at all the fantastic effort of volunteers or teaching assistants in helping youngsters to read. I am concerned with getting the momentum going—with getting the youngsters to a level at which they will benefit even more from those other interventions.

Reading recovery was supported by large-scale Government funding, and was then funded by local authorities and school budgets, and through regeneration programmes, but now it needs clarity and direction from Government. It is, in some senses, at a turning point, and it needs Government—and the Minister—to be clear about how the future for reading recovery is seen.

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Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Allen: I should be delighted; I know that the hon. Lady has a long-standing interest in the matter.

Annette Brooke: I cannot say that I disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but would it not be more complete to ask the Minister for a whole strategy, including tackling communication problems pre-school, as well as picking up the pieces when people have fallen through the gap, but keeping the continuity right through education? A short intervention will not work unless it is backed by resources in a long-term strategy.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Lady has hit on a serious and important point. All too often we are considering remedies—putting things right instead of getting them right in the first place, and instead of setting up a continual strategy to ensure that children achieve. Wherever we look in social policy we can perceive what is happening: for example, in relation to 16 to 18-year-olds in my constituency who are not in employment, education or training one might ask why—where is it going wrong? Then the analysis can be regressed back to secondary school and the skills taught there: one can ask why one in seven boys in my constituency could not read the first lesson at school. Then one can ask about primary level, the giving of support and, as I have mentioned, the teaching of social behaviour at that level; and then one can read the Ofsted reports of every primary school in my constituency—which, I admit, is at one end of the spectrum—highlighting the problem of youngsters not being ready for school. Regressing further, one comes to the point at which a child is born, and the level of parenting skills and interaction.

I have seen an incredibly revealing slide from research work done by Worldwide Alternatives to Violence, which has been used in the social exclusion unit booklet, showing the brain of a three-year-old child who is loved, nurtured and spoken to, and who has all that a young child needs, alongside the brain of a neglected child who has no interaction, is poorly nourished and does not receive the stimulus that one would expect. There is a marked difference in size between the brains of those youngsters, aged three. To see that given physical expression was a shock and a sobering experience, even for someone who, like me, feels that they know a little about the subject. There are youngsters who are physically unable to do what everyone else takes for granted. The intervention by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) is, therefore, absolutely right.

We need to complete a circle back to what we do to improve parenting skills, what we do prenatally and what we do before the people concerned decide—if a choice is indeed made—to have a child. The process should loop round to the parenting skills and the social and family skills that we are now beginning to teach in secondary school, so that people make the right choices and do not experience teenage pregnancy or take up the unhealthy lifestyles that so many youngsters engage in. If we complete that virtuous circle, we can start to
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tackle some of those problems, rather than spend billions of pounds on the consequences of neglect and the failure to intervene at the right time.

The case is put particularly eloquently by a quote in the Select Committee on Education and Skills 2005 report, “Teaching Children to Read”:

on which I have tried to focus today. It goes on:

The Select Committee goes on to say:

That sums up my argument.

On one level, I would like to see a world in which all parents were helped to be skilled enough to ensure that every child arrived at school school-ready and prepared to take the journey of learning to read. Parents need that help. In my constituency, 58 per cent. of children are born out of wedlock. I make no moral judgment about that, but it is a structural fact that needs to be addressed in a constituency such as mine. Parents absolutely need that early intervention so that they can give their children the future that they want to give them just as much as any parent in the Chamber wants to give their children a good future.

Until children are arriving at school school-ready, I would like reading recovery to be available to all children, not just in my constituency but everywhere in the UK where difficulties with literacy needlessly waste their potential. I make an offer: as chair of the local strategic partnership, One Nottingham, I am prepared to help to fund such an initiative in my city if and when the local education authority and the children and young people’s partnership there feel that that is appropriate and are ready to go ahead with it.

I end with a quote from someone who is learning to read and doing pretty well—my daughter Grace. This morning, while I was preparing for this speech and Grace was sitting reading a book, I said to her, “Grace, I’ve got this speech in the House of Commons; I don’t know really know how to finish it appropriately, because it is pretty serious. What do you think?” She put down the Lemony Snicket book that she was reading and looked at me. I said, “Tell me, Grace, why is reading important?” and she replied, “You don’t get much out of life if you don’t read.” I ask the Minister to give every child that opportunity.

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11.24 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for raising this important issue. He spoke with a great deal of passion and conviction. I am sure that those of us who regard these matters enthusiastically are not unique; there are many others outside this place who feel that passion. I certainly feel it having spent 13 years in a classroom as a teacher of young children before coming to this place.

The central feature of the case for enhanced reading recovery programmes is not simply about literacy or academic achievement, crucial though they are. As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, the capacity to read is closely linked—I apologise if there is a very child-centred feel to my remarks—to self-esteem, behavioural patterns in school and beyond, and the ability of all children fully to be involved in the school community and to access the entire curriculum. I shall not succumb to the temptation of relating anecdotes of my experiences, but I will say that one could guarantee that at one of the urban schools in which I taught, such behavioural problems and the more deep-seated problems on the estate could be traced back to the problems of underachievement, particularly in literacy. One could pinpoint those cases almost universally. That was the reality of the situation.

I shall not get into the debate about standard assessment tests and particular statistics of achievement, on some of which the hon. Gentleman and I may beg to differ, other than to comment on the target culture that he mentioned. As a teacher—and professional, I hope—I know that we all felt that pressure very strongly. Mercifully, SATs have now gone in Wales. The teaching profession went through the rigours and stipulations of the national curriculum and the emergence of the literacy and numeracy hours. I welcomed the literacy hour because it gave me a focus as a new teacher, but many children simply could not keep up. For them, it was absolutely meaningless to look in detail at text for an hour every day and analyse word patterns. Those were children in years 5 and 6, not the youngest children about whom the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned, as we all are.

There is no doubt that a huge number of children are missing out. At the core of this debate are issues of inclusiveness and entitlement. I have seen figures that suggest that 440,000 adults in Wales—25 per cent. of the population—have serious literacy difficulties. We are told that young offenders in pupil referral units are missing out on basic educational programmes, but as the hon. Gentleman has said, the failing is much earlier on. We know that early intervention works, and that with approaches of the types suggested, two thirds of the children involved will go on to achieve expected levels at the end of key stage 1. Given that early impetus, and without extra help, half of those children will achieve expected levels four years on at the end of key stage 2. That is why it is vital to build a culture of reading and appreciating books. That is not just a middle-class phenomenon.

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