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Low Educational Attainment

12.30 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I do not intend today to give the Minister a big work load today, but I want to lay down a marker. I thank Catch22, Save the Children, the Child Poverty Action Group and Michele Sutton, the principal at Bradford college, for contacting me and providing me with useful information, as well as useful questions that I shall no doubt put in written form later.

A few years ago, I was on the second largest council estate in Bradford in the youth centre, where I have been on the committee for probably nearly 30 years now. I came out of the door and a mobile library was outside. I decided to go and chat to the driver. A young woman got on the mobile library bus with a toddler. The buses are set up with a play area with Lego bricks and so on at one end. I remember clearly that the toddler got on and started to move towards the books, but the mother said, "You don't want those; they are only books." It is funny how things stick in one's mind, but that said so much about the possibilities and life chances that that child probably had.

The research on early years, and indeed pre-early years, is pretty compelling. I know that today I am speaking to people who know about the subject and are concerned about it, and I am not here to teach anyone to suck eggs, but I want to mention the "Meaningful Differences" research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the university of Kansas some years ago. It showed that parents from what they called the professional class had interactions-words that were spoken-with their children at a rate of, on average, 2,150 per hour. Among those from what they called working class backgrounds the rate was 1,250 per hour, and for those from what they called welfare families it was 620 words per hour. That is happening hour after hour, day in, day out. The cumulative effect of that in the first three years, if extrapolated, was a difference of 20 million words between the professional class and the welfare class, and that is before we consider the quality of the language, or the social interactions happening alongside language development.

Clearly, many of the measures that we have put in place start far too late in a child's life. We can start at any point, but, to take the example of universities, I am very aware of what happens there in the way of pastoral care and financial support for young people from deprived backgrounds. In addition, there is the Aimhigher campaign to encourage more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. Work is done in sixth forms to encourage applications, and in schools at key stages 3 and 4 to encourage staying on into the sixth form. In year 6 there is help with the difficult transition from primary to secondary school, and other work is done in schools and off site with those who struggle academically. Primary schools give additional support, including mentoring and one-to-one support. Nurture rooms have been created, and there has been a development of parental involvement and learning enrichment programmes in those environments. At the pre-school stage there is early years work, with Sure Start children's centres to provide help to children.

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The sad fact, however, is how little of that works. Despite all the things I have mentioned, the gap between a child from a deprived background and one from a more affluent background increases as they go through the education system-the disadvantage widens. That is incredible but true. I have secured today's debate not because I have answers, but because it is clear from all the good work done by many organisations that none of us seems to have them.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Perhaps I may add a slight complication into the mix regarding the problem that he has elegantly identified: an urban-rural divide. He was careful not to characterise the problem as an urban phenomenon, and I am sure that he will agree that there is also a challenge for rural areas, where often it is difficult to measure at the base the problems of social exclusion because of the dispersal of rural households and the frequent proximity of deprived families to apparent affluence. That has an effect on educational achievement and the capacity of authorities to deliver responsive measures to the children in question.

The problem is not just urban but rural, so there are particular challenges for hon. Members who represent rural areas. However, I appreciate that as the debate covers England, the Minister cannot respond specifically to my Cardiganshire concerns.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. That intervention was very close to being a speech.

Mr Ward: Deprivation, of course, knows no geographic boundaries, and is everywhere we look. It needs to be dealt with wherever it is located.

A great deal is being done in many settings, but it is all really amelioration and compensation or, in more prosaic terms, catching up. We clearly need to focus more on the pre-school and pre-early years settings. As we know, many children are already at a disadvantage in the womb. This debate is intended to identify a problem of which many people are already aware, to show that I know a little about it and feel strongly about it, and most of all to send out a clear message that I am extremely keen to work with other organisations and politicians to address the problem.

12.38 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate. This is my first outing in Westminster Hall as a Minister, and it is pleasing that the debate was initiated by a Liberal Democrat, with a response from a Liberal Democrat and a Liberal Democrat in the Chair. I know that the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) wants to intervene later, but she will forgive me for momentarily making a smug Liberal Democrat point.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is an active campaigner on the issue, and he shares my passion for matters of social justice. I hope that his securing the debate so early is an indication of the issues that he will champion in the five years of the Parliament. He shares the ambition of the coalition Government and, indeed, that of hon. Members across
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the House to secure better futures for children who live in poverty. What he said about the importance of early years education was music to my ears. I am grateful to him for making those points today.

My hon. Friend argued persuasively that deprivation and fairness really matter. They matter to individuals and communities, and they matter to the success of our country. Sadly, as he said, where children live and the families who they live with are still uniquely strong predictors of how their lives will turn out. For example, statistics show that a baby born in Harlesden in my constituency of Brent Central is likely to die more than 10 years before a child born in neighbouring Kensington, which is but a short drive away. That is unacceptable. It is an outrage that those statistics should still be so relevant. That is what why I am so passionate about fighting on this matter.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving way. In the past 10 or 15 years, organisations and national strategies have resulted in our becoming the most data-rich nation in Europe and possibly the world. Those data tell us that the attainment of our highest-achieving pupils is as good as, if not better than, that of those in Europe or the USA; we are pipped only by a specific group of countries. However, the attainment of our lowest-achieving pupils is almost an international disgrace. Over the past three or four years, Government policy has shifted towards narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest attaining pupils-between pupils living in poverty and the rest, looked-after children and their peers, and pupils with special educational needs and others.

People who, like me, have spent 25 years working at all levels with the worst-attaining pupils, disadvantaged children and children living in poverty were mentally running around the country punching the air because such children were suddenly at the forefront of Government policy. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that the spotlight of the inspection framework and considering not only raw attainment-

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We will have to shorten that intervention a bit. It is more like a speech.

Pat Glass: Perhaps that is because I am a new Member. I want to know that considering such things as levels of progress will not change.

Sarah Teather: I understand the point that the hon. Lady was trying to make, even if it was cut short. I reassure her that I am absolutely committed to gap-narrowing. For me, that is the point of early years education and early years provision. We may disagree about some of the ways to measure whether the gap has narrowed. We may debate the matter in more detail over the next few years, but I suspect that we share the same commitment to ensuring that the investment in early years provision narrows the gap-the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East. I shall say a little more about that later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) makes a good point. I represent an inner-city seat, and I see the consequences of poverty writ large in my advice surgeries and in my constituency office every day. However, the problem is not confined to the cities; it is very evident also in rural areas. What
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he said about the dispersal of families, which makes it more challenging for local authorities and other service providers to tackle the problem, was a point well made, and I am well aware of the issue. The policies that the coalition Government have put in place will include specific mechanisms to deal with child poverty.

The uncomfortable truth is that the link between deprivation and low attainment exists across the country-not only in my constituency but everywhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East gave some statistics, but those given to me by my officials are even more stark. They suggest that children from poorer backgrounds have a smaller vocabulary at the age of three than their peers and that, by the age of four, they have heard 30 million fewer words. Whether the figure is 20 million or 30 million, the statistics are stark. Again, that is a challenge for early years provision. Low-ability children from rich families overtake high-ability children from poorer families at primary school. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the gap widens as the children grow older; children eligible for free school meals are half as likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A to C, including English and maths, as those from wealthier backgrounds.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject and to consider some of the reforms needed to break the link between deprivation and low attainment. It goes to the heart of the coalition's plans to build a fairer, more responsible and freer society that we should have policies to tackle the problem on all fronts. That could be done through better-focused early years provision, which I mentioned a moment ago, or through giving families more practical support or ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds get the same chance at school as their peers.

The question, therefore, is whether we consider deprivation to be an automatic barrier to success, or whether good teaching, good early years provision and good government can all play a part in helping to reduce inequality and unfairness. I passionately believe that that is a role for the Government, and we believe that those factors can bring that about. That is why we have already set about tackling deprivation, not only as an end in itself; we are also tackling the systemic weaknesses that highlight and deepen those divisions as children go through life.

For example, we are committed to hitting the 2020 child poverty target already laid out in legislation. We also plan a review of poverty and life chances, which will be chaired by Frank Field. We have set out a school reform programme. Most critically, we have announced the pupil premium. Finally, of course, we have decided to recruit more health visitors for Sure Start children's centres to help the most disadvantaged families.

Mr Mark Williams: I applaud that list of measures. I was in the teaching profession in a previous life. What greatly impressed me was the need in areas of deprivation for real measures to encourage parental participation in the education system. I was involved in a pilot scheme to improve numeracy among parents. We need to get that partnership right. I hope that the measures that the Minister listed will include a strong role for parents. The old adage was that teachers have children for six hours a day but that they are at home for the remaining 18. It is most important that we get official recognition of that and encourage parents as well as the children.

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Sarah Teather: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Secretary of State for Education will consider that as part of schools' wider role, but it is not only for schools. Sure Start centres also have a role in encouraging parents to be involved with their children. There are also the informal and more formal literacy schemes that have been mentioned.

The list that I gave is a broad package of reform designed to break the link between deprivation and low attainment on all fronts. The danger is that we could be fatalistic about it, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East that the first few months and years of a child's life are critical. However, we must remember that deprivation is not all that matters. We can improve the lives of children and young people at every point in their development. For me, it goes to the heart of our liberal philosophy that we must always give people second chances-there must be no closed doors-throughout the education system.

My hon. Friend raised various issues when opening the debate. In particular, I wish to speak about the Government's strategy on child poverty. Reducing poverty must be a fundamental part of our strategy to increase social mobility. The coalition Government are clear about the need to create that fairer society. To that end, I am delighted that we have committed ourselves to eradicating child poverty by 2020. I look forward for working with Ministers across the Government on how to achieve that goal. My hon. Friend will be aware that Liberal Democrat plans for a pupil premium have been adopted by the coalition. It is a critical element of our reform plans. I believe that schools have a pivotal role in breaking the link between deprivation and low attainment.

My hon. Friend will know that we are keen to ensure that Sure Start children centres focus more on working with families from deprived backgrounds-those from the neediest families. Children's centres have much to offer all families from all backgrounds, but we must ensure that they are better at reaching out to those families who are most in need. For example, more than 95% of families currently take up their free entitlement offer for child care, but a disproportionate number of more disadvantaged families still do not. Sure Start has an important role to play in encouraging families to take up that offer and in promoting fairness. To a certain extent, that is already happening in many of the good Sure Start centres. We have some tremendously talented, dedicated early years professionals, both in the work force and in outreach teams, who are committed to reducing social injustice, and we have many good examples to show how we can achieve that. However, the Government can do much more to ensure that best practice is spread across the country.

Health visitors have a crucial role to play in reaching out to vulnerable families. They are there from pregnancy right through to the first few years of a child's life, so, as my hon. Friend said, they cover the earliest days of a child's life. That is why we are committed to increase dramatically the number of Sure Start health visitors and to ensure that more vulnerable families access such services. As a Government, it is our responsibility to help every child, whatever their background or circumstances, to achieve their full potential. If we trust professionals to do their jobs and free them from the top-down bureaucracy of recent years, we can achieve that. Most importantly, we believe that the coalition
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should take action to support the disadvantaged and that such support-whether through free child care, the pupil premium or early intervention-is crucial to unlocking social mobility and overcoming low attainment.

Strong learning and development in the early years can have a huge impact on reducing the causal link between deprivation and low attainment. It lays the foundation for achievement at and after school, with 94% of children who achieve a good level of development at age five going on to achieve the expected levels for reading at key stage 1. Those children are then five times more likely to achieve the highest level.

The most recent evidence from neuroscience also highlights the importance of the first three years of a child's life. At birth, a baby's brain is only 25% formed, developing to 80% by the age three, with most growth taking place in the first year of life. A strong start in the early years has been found to increase the probability of positive outcomes across the child's life; a weak foundation has been found to significantly increase the risk of later difficulties. In short, the first 36 months of a child's life are as important, if not more so, than the next 36 years, so good, properly targeted early years provision can do a huge amount to mitigate the impacts of deprivation.

It is also worth mentioning that we are looking at the wider impact of deprivation and not just at the income measures themselves. Frank Field has been tasked by the Prime Minister to lead a review of poverty. We also have a new ministerial taskforce on childhood and families, which is being chaired by the Prime Minister and includes the Deputy Prime Minister. Its role will be to tackle what the Deputy Prime Minister has described as

There will be further announcements on the programme of the new ministerial taskforce and how it will operate. It will certainly consider some broad areas that are very relevant to a child's life chances: parental leave and flexible working; how we can protect children in the event of family breakdown; increasing access to safe and secure play space; and helping children to avoid pressures that force them to grow up too quickly. We expect that work to conclude in the autumn and follow a timetable similar to that of the spending review. I certainly expect it to address some of the points about poverty and attainment that my hon. Friend raised at the start of his remarks.

I should like to return to the role of schools. My hon. Friend spoke specifically about early years, rather than schools. He argued very passionately that it is early years intervention that makes such a difference. However, that is not enough; we have to ensure that we give children, at whatever stage, the best possible chance to succeed. Schools are part of that critical mix in breaking the link between poverty and low attainment.

The ethical imperative of our education policy is quite simple: we have to make opportunity more equal. We must overcome deep, historically entrenched factors that keep so many people in poverty and that deprive so many people of the chance to shape their own destiny. By 18, the gap is vast. In the most recent year for which we have data, out of 80,000 young people eligible for free school meals, just 45 made it to Oxbridge. As a nation, we are clearly still wasting talent on a scandalous scale, and that is why I am so glad that at the heart of
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our coalition's programme for government is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest. That specifically picks up on one of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion raised about the difficulties that rural communities face. A rural area may not be classed as deprived, so families from the poorest backgrounds do not get the extra help that they need. One of the advantages of the pupil premium policy is that the money follows the child, so the child's school will get money to ensure that extra help is focused on raising attainment at every level.

Mr Ward: I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) for her interventions. I have already googled you and seen that you have made solid contributions to the subject over many years. Indeed, you have contributed to education, which I was not aware of before. I am not criticising anybody in this debate, because I am aware of the tremendous efforts that are being made by professionals and volunteers to raise the life chances of young people. As the chair of governors of a school in a deprived community, I am really frustrated by the fact that although we have an extremely impressive value added score-our achievement is high-our attainment is very low because of the level at which the children come into the school. However much we do, and we try to do more and more, we continually face the problem of children coming into the school with low attainment.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. That was very close to another speech. Let me remind Members that when addressing other colleagues in the Chamber, we do not use the word "you"; we use their constituency title. I am not being pernickety; that is the custom of the House. Moreover, when a Member refers to someone who is still a Member, they should do so not by their name, but by their constituency.

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