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Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

European Communities

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Minimum Stock of Crude Oil And/or Petroleum Products

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

External Service

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 17 June (Standing Order No. 41A).


Planning and Development (Somerset)

7.18 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The petition is from people who wish to stop the over-development in Taunton Deane. They realise that some extra development is desirable, particularly of affordable housing, but the level of development envisaged is excessive.

The petition states:


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School Nurture Groups

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—(David Wright.)

7.20 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to her new position on the Front Bench. As someone who was elected alongside her in 2005, I know she is one of the brightest and best on the Labour Benches. I trust and believe she will do a superb job in the role she has been given.

I pay tribute to this Government’s record in improving education across the board in my constituency and in west Cumbria as a whole. The fact that attainment levels at primary and secondary schools have improved significantly since 1997 is beyond any significant doubt. In the town of Egremont in my constituency, the Government have responded to my calls for individual and specific initiatives by investing almost £30 million in the new West Lakes academy school, which is soon to begin construction; by agreeing to allocate a further £80 million of capital expenditure on secondary schools in the area; and through other routes, such as funding for the first time in the history of west Cumbria not only the university of Cumbria, but the university of Central Lancashire and the university of Manchester’s Dalton facility—both at the Westlake science park. In addition, Sure Start centres in my constituency have been an unqualified success.

It is, however, a matter of profound regret to me and all those who care about the life chances of future generations of west Cumbrian children that the Opposition have promised to abolish Sure Start centres and slash education spending by billions should they ever form a Government. Let me be absolutely clear that the public funds being put into education in west Cumbria and my constituency in particular are without any precedent. Labour Governments make these investments because we understand the true power of education. It is through education that society is strengthened, that individuals prosper and that most of the ills facing us as a society can be cured.

Undoubtedly, it is through the distribution of knowledge and learning that we really redistribute wealth, and that we really redistribute power and opportunity, and it is through education that we will eradicate poverty in this country. I mean not just physical or economic poverty, but the toxic and uniquely contagious poverty of ambition and aspiration that still blights so many of our communities. That is why nurture groups are so incredibly important.

As someone who has entered public life, like the Minister, with the determination to achieve those ends, I have seen just how important nurture groups are, where they exist, in helping to achieve those policy objectives. Nurture groups provide effective support for vulnerable children and young people who experience barriers to their learning for a variety of social, emotional and academic reasons. Nurture groups help children to succeed: they improve attendance, engage parents in their child’s education and build confidence and self-esteem. None of us can doubt that for our children to succeed, they must first know what success is.

Nurture groups have been in existence for 40 years, with a proven track record of success, and can also be found in countries such as New Zealand and Canada.
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There are more than 1,000 nurture groups in the UK, funded variously by local authorities, schools and charitable donations. As far as I am aware, no nurture groups are funded directly by central Government or by additional grants to local education authorities—a situation that in my view should change as soon as possible, irrespective of the straitened economic times in which we find ourselves.

Nurture groups cover a variety of children from different social and economic backgrounds and with different educational attainment levels and abilities. There is no typical child for whom a nurture group is suitable. Rather, it is progressive teachers in supported and supportive professional environments who identify the need for nurture groups in their schools and who in turn identify those children who would benefit most from a period of nurture.

As matters stand, the existence of nurture groups in schools in my constituency and across the country is testimony to the professional excellence demonstrated by so many of our teachers—people such as Pamela Telford and Ann Banks at Monkwray primary school, and Pauline Lambert and Lynne McQuire at Millom infants. Kells infants and Valley primary, too, have seen the need for these groups, and across west Cumbria, Wendy Roden, Leesa Taylor, John Kirk and others have undertaken unique work. These are people who believe passionately in their own ability and in the power of education to change the lives of individuals and to improve their communities and society—and they do not and will not wait for other agencies or other people to identify problems and produce solutions. Nor should they. In short, as happens with so many successes, they have chosen not to wait for politicians to get around to solving the problems that they see daily, but to take the necessary action themselves. In my view, that initiative should be rewarded with fixed, stable funding, and the best practice with which those people are associated should be shared nationally.

Like the Minister, I entered politics to improve the lives of my constituents, to open the doors of opportunity, and to prioritise my efforts in favour of those who need help the most. I have seen hundreds of examples of improved public services in my constituency in recent years. I have seen new dialysis units, new emergency medicine centres, new classrooms and more, and I care passionately about them all. I have also recently visited a number of nurture groups in my constituency, and I can say without exaggeration that I have never been as moved or convinced by the need for any public service.

I have seen the lives of children being changed in front of my face. I have seen the life chances of some children unfold and expand as I have been in the classroom, and I have never seen anything like it in any school environment. At one school in my constituency, I met a little girl who used the nurture group dressing-up box to dress as a princess. The teacher gave her and other classmates a digital camera. They would take photographs, print them and display them in the classroom. The teacher told me that only weeks earlier, the little girl in question kept asking the teacher and classmates who the pretty girl in the photograph was. She could not recognise herself. She had no sense of self—no awareness of herself—and it took weeks to convince her that the girl in the photograph actually was her. As soon as that knowledge took hold, her life was changed.

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I have never seen pride like the pride that I saw in that little girl’s face when she showed me the photographs of herself. I can only compare it to watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. The girl did not have an easy family background. Her parents themselves had not enjoyed what could be termed a rewarding experience in education. However, the change in their daughter changed the family. I have seen children transformed by specialist care, not just emotionally but educationally.

At every school that I have visited where these groups exist, not just the children but their parents receive the nurture that they need, and the life-changing support that, for some reason, they do not receive anywhere else. The same can be said of male pupils. I have seen primary and junior school boys win competition prizes, only to find that they are incapable—physically incapable—of accepting those prizes, along with the plaudits and congratulations that they deserve. They refuse to make eye contact.

I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) is present. He shares a constituency boundary with me, and he will be aware of what is happening in our part of the world.

What I have described does not happen only occasionally. It happens regularly, but it does not have to be this way. It is just as important to recognise that such behaviour can develop into a culture if it is left unattended in significant numbers of children. Tragically, a generational cycle can develop. There is enough qualitative evidence to demonstrate such an issue in communities throughout the country, particularly those that have been scarred by the brutal economic transitions of the 1980s.

As children in nurture groups learn academically and socially, they develop confidence, become responsive to others, and take pride in behaving well and in achievement. Usually after less than three school terms, more than 80 per cent. are ready to return full time to the mainstream class with which they will have kept in daily contact. When that is not possible, children are still helped by their time in nurture groups. The nature of their difficulties is better understood by their teachers, and the special help that they need can be identified and sought. This is a move that is usually welcomed by parents who have seen their children’s particular educational needs become apparent.

The House should not just take my word for it, however. In April this year, Sir Alan Steer recognised the importance of nurture groups in his report “Learning Behaviour: Lessons learned. A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools”. His report contained the following recommendation:

I agree with Sir Alan. Moreover, I believe that the evidence in support of these groups is overwhelming.

Pulling policy levers in Whitehall will not by itself deliver the same kind of results that I have seen nurture groups achieve on the ground in our communities, on
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our streets, and in hearts and minds where it matters most. Having achieved so much, our Government should harness these energies and enable them to flourish further with the predictable funding they now need. Ultimately, if we do not do this—if this Government and our party do not do this—no one else will. I will therefore now write to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to ask them to include a commitment to nurture groups in the next Labour party manifesto.

More importantly, I shall now make some specific requests of the Minister and her Department. Will her Department now make dedicated financial provision for the funding of nurture groups wherever they are required? Will her Department now undertake a national study or a series of pilot studies where nurture groups exist in areas of social deprivation? Will representatives of her Department meet with the Nurture Group Network to discuss its work and how best to take this forward? Finally, will the Minister please come and see for herself the remarkable results achieved by nurture groups in my constituency? Raised attainment levels, record numbers of new schools, dramatically improved pay and conditions for teachers, an information and communications technology revolution, record numbers of people in education and university, and the magnificent work of our Sure Start centres: this is a record to be proud of, and that nobody else would be capable of. Let us finish the job, however; let us now give our nurture groups the support they deserve.

7.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on securing the debate, and I thank him for his very kind words at the start of his speech.

I know from my hon. Friend’s eloquent speech this evening that he shares my commitment to excellence in education and is dedicated to ensuring the very best provision for the children and young people of his constituency. The topic of this debate is of the utmost importance to this Government, because we have made a promise that we are going to make this the best country in the world for children to grow up in. That means not only offering young people the best education possible, but ensuring their welfare at every stage.

As we outlined in Every Child Matters, we want children’s lives to be happy, healthy and safe. That is why our Department is revolutionising the way that children are looked after in and out of school. This is crucial not only to a child’s broader development, but to their educational attainment. If a child feels happy, secure and safe, they are more likely to come to school ready to learn. Schools now work more closely with health services, police and the voluntary sector than ever before to make sure that every aspect of children’s well-being is supported. Importantly, Every Child Matters gave the opportunity for children and parents to have their thoughts and concerns heard by the Government, so we could construct the safest and most effective ways to meet the needs of every child and every parent. Putting the voice of the child and young person at the heart of the debate so it informs everything we do is absolutely essential if services are truly to meet their needs.

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The children’s plan has taken that even further, setting out a vision for greater partnerships between schools and children services. We now have more than 3,000 Sure Start centres, offering practical advice and support for both families and children. More schools than ever before are offering extended services to meet the wider needs of children, including breakfast clubs, study support groups and easier access to specialist services for those who need extra support. We want to meet the needs of every child, to help them achieve their best. The Labour Government have a proud record on this, which stands up to independent scrutiny and will certainly be under threat if there is a change of Government.

We know that what happens to a child in the first few years of life has a huge effect on their future development and life chances, so making sure that every child’s needs are met as soon as they start primary school is of utmost importance. When children are experiencing difficulties, early intervention is vital. As my hon. Friend set out so effectively, nurture groups support children who are showing signs of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. They are a place where pupils can spend all or most of the day, normally over a period of no longer than a year. They can create a predictable and secure environment for children to engage with their learning and to overcome their behavioural problems. As they begin to improve, they will gradually spend more and more time in mainstream classes until they can be fully integrated again into a typical classroom.

Nurture groups are not new, and indeed the Department has recognised their valuable contribution to the well-being of pupils for some time. The 1997 Green Paper “Excellence for All” set out a programme for improving special educational needs provision. In particular, it said that nurture groups offer a promising approach to the education of children with learning difficulties. Since then, the groups have flourished all over the country, and we have heard this evening about those in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, nurture groups were an essential part of Sir Alan Steer’s final report on behaviour, published in April this year, in which he recognised the importance of early intervention in raising behaviour standards in schools. He recommended that we undertake an assessment of the impact of nurture groups in areas of high deprivation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a commitment to act on all the recommendations in Sir Alan’s report, and we intend to publish our detailed implementation plan later this summer. I hope that that answers the particular question that my hon. Friend posed at the end of his speech.

There are, of course, other effective ways that behavioural and emotional problems can be addressed across the whole school, so that all children can understand the importance of managing their behaviour. That is because behavioural problems can have a knock-on effect on all students and staff, not just the individuals concerned. Students need to learn to be able to value and respect their teachers and one another so that good manners can go beyond the classroom, out into the corridor and into the playground.

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