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|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 9th March 2011|
Publications on the internet
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Thatcher, Richard Ward, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The Chair: Can I first ask hon. Members, when they are contributing, to speak clearly and speak up, for the benefit of other members of the Committee and the general public? The acoustics in this room are notoriously bad.
Kevin Brennan: Bore da. Good morning. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. By way of a few opening remarks at the beginning of our deliberation of the Bill, as the Opposition, we want to make it clear that we are keen to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly. Unlike in the previous Parliament, there is only one major opposition party to scrutinise the legislation before us, although we do have the benefit of the hon. Member for Foyle, who is not in his place at the moment. We will be endeavouring to scrutinise the Bill as thoroughly as possible, in a reasonable way. As we made clear during the discussions on the programme motion, we feel that there is an opportunity, with the time available, to do that job in a reasonable way.
Before turning to the amendments, I will say that even though the Bill has 79 clauses and 17 schedules, it is complicated compared with other recent education Acts. Some 15 education Acts will be amended by this legislation, including the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the Education Act 1994, the Education Act 1996, the Education Act 1997, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and so on, right down to the Academies Act 2010. It is a complicated Bill, and very little of it will remain once we have disposed of it, because it mainly consists of changes to other pieces of legislation.
I am sure that Committee members from all parts of the House will want to do a thorough job in holding the Government to account on this complex piece of legislation. We are looking forward to hearing the view of all members of the Committee. I am sure that hon. Members on the Government Back Benches will want to make their contribution, just as they did in the evidence sessions, and we look forward to hearing their views during our deliberations.
Following those opening pleasantries, I will turn to the amendments before us. On clause 1, the amendments have been grouped in such a way that there are five amendments to go through in my opening remarks on clause 1, which introduces and extends early years provision to two-year-olds. Currently, there is universal provision for early years learning for three and four-year-olds. Clause 1 would extend that opportunity to disadvantaged two-year-olds.
Amendments 4 and 5 would ensure that there is no question that the universal provision that currently exists would be undermined by the changes made in the
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his opening remarks. For me, too, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I refer the hon. Member for Cardiff West to the provisions of the original section 7 introduced by his legislation which gives the Secretary of State at that time power to prescribe,
Kevin Brennan: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I shall come on to that point in the course of my remarks. I accept that the Government have not indicated that they have any intention to restrict the universal early years offer for three and four-year-olds. I shall refer to the Government’s note later in my remarks as well, but this clause does appear to make such restriction possible, and organisations such as the National Children’s Bureau, the Daycare Trust and the National Union of Teachers have raised concerns about the potential within the current clause for a future Secretary of State to restrict the universal early years offer for three and four-year-olds.
“The NUT welcomes the extension under clause 1 of the free entitlement for early education and childcare for disadvantaged two year olds. It is hoped that Ministers will provide reassurances that there is no intention on the part of Government to restrict or remove the universality of provision for all three and four year olds.”
“the key thing we’d like to get out of the discussion on Clause 1 is for the government to reassert its commitment to the universal entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds. There has been some concern in the sector that the changes to the Childcare Act mean that the government could choose to means-test it through regulations.”
Now, of course, those comments are correct; we do need those assurances and I am fairly sure that the Minister will provide us with those assurances. We will welcome that, but in addition to those assurances, we also need to know that the Bill does not provide even a theoretical power for Ministers to remove the universal entitlement in future. Assurances from Ministers are all very well, but Secretaries of State come and go and the current Secretary of State is on special measures, having had to undertake a series of U-turns over policy—whether over school sport or Building Schools for the Future—and having been found guilty in the courts of an abuse of power.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): From the hon. Gentleman’s period as a Minister, did he always legislate to ensure that all theoretical situations were covered in all his Bills? It seems to me to be quite difficult to do that.
Kevin Brennan: I can assure the hon. Member that I would have been asking that very question of my officials at all stages of any legislation I was part of, to ensure that not only that what was written in the Bill was sufficient to cover my intentions, but that it was also sufficiently strongly written to ensure that a future Administration—for example, an Administration made up of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—would not be able to come along and misuse the Bill’s provisions in such a way as to undermine my progressive intentions as a Minister. So my answer to his question is yes.
Ministers will often tell you that what is written in a Bill is very difficult to change, which is why Ministers are keen to have a lot of regulation—as in this Bill—to pin down the detail of legislation. Once we have written something in a Bill, it is, if not in stone, then there for a considerable time. We have to ensure that the clause cannot be used in a way that is not originally intended by the Government or by Parliament. It is therefore extremely important for the Minister to give an assurance. We need more than an assurance that that is not the Government’s intention: we need an assurance that it will not be possible under the clause for a future Secretary of State to come along and do what I have just said.
“An English local authority must secure that early years provision of a prescribed description is available free of charge for such periods as may be prescribed for each young child in their area who—
The legislation passed by his Administration did not do the things that he is now requesting we do in the Bill. I cannot understand how he can claim that he and his Administration would have legislated for all eventualities, as it is clear that they did not.
Kevin Brennan: In answer to the first part of the Minister’s comment, I was not a Minister at the time he mentions, other than in the sense that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East is a Minister as a Government Whip. I understand that there are regulations that clarify the age range for universal provision, which I shall come on to.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): If my memory serves me correctly—we are going back some five years—at the time, the legislation was drafted in that way because the Labour Government had set out their intention to extend free child care rather than to restrict it and the law was written in that spirit. I accept that doing that gives the opportunity to go the other way, but we have had no commitment from this Government that they will go further. Therefore, it is perfectly correct for us to want to get those assurances on the record.
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is right and we are seeking to get that assurance on the record this morning. I am sure that the Minister will be able to elucidate further on exactly why the clause has been drafted in that way.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May I come to the hon. Gentleman’s aid? He is quite right to press for such assurances from the Government. However, it does not help his case to make out that the previous Government behaved differently than they did.
I hope that the Minister will give the customary assurance of his intentions and explain why the clause is worded in a way that appears to give—he may be able to tell me that it does not—the Secretary of State the power to remove the universality of the three and four-year-old offer. We have tabled the amendments to guarantee that the universal provision is not under threat by the clause and to ensure that any future Secretary of State would need new legislation if he intended to change that entitlement.
Section 7 of the 2006 Act, which clause 1 will amend, does not specify a minimum age for free entitlement. In amendment 5, we have used wording from the Labour Government’s regulations, which offered all parents the entitlement from the start of the term of their child’s third birthday.
Let me refer to the note that the Department sent around, which we received yesterday at 4.34 pm, just before the Committee was due to meet. It gives a degree of detail about the Government’s intention as regards clause 1. Obviously it would have been welcome had we been able to have sight of the note before 4.34 pm yesterday. Will the Minister let us know why we had to receive it so late? When was it drafted and ready to be sent out? Was there a mistake in its coming out so late? It would have been useful for the Opposition and members of the Committee in preparing amendments and for the Bill if we could have received that note much earlier. I hope that all Members have had a chance to have a look at the note from the Department yesterday.
It is welcome that that is contained in the note. Notwithstanding that, it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could explain and clarify that the clause would not do what some of the stakeholders who have contacted hon. Members are concerned it could do. I look forward to the Minister’s response on amendments 4 and 5, and in particular to the question of why the clause has been drawn up in a way that has caused some alarm to those who are keen to defend the existing universal early years provision.
Let me move on to amendment 6. The Bill aims to extend free early years provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds and the Opposition support that extension, not least because it is a watered down version of a proposal that we developed in government as part of the publication of the children’s plan in 2007. Although little of the wider vision of what services for children and families should look like remains in the Government’s rather narrower focus on children and families, we can broadly say that the provision is a progressive step in the right direction—definitely in the direction of travel that we had signalled and started after the children’s plan” of 2007. However, we would like the Government to be clearer about how they define “disadvantaged”. Again, the note from the Government that we received at 4.34 pm yesterday gave some further detail on that, reiterating that they have a target for two-year-olds to receive the free entitlement of 20% of the cohort.
The definition in our amendment was taken from page 13 of the Department’s research publication, “Towards universal early years provision: analysis of take-up by disadvantaged families from recent annual childcare surveys”, published in November 2009. Organisations such as NASUWT and the National Children’s Bureau have requested that such a definition be included in the Bill. For example, the NCB said that
“this commitment provides an opportunity to extend free early-years provision to other groups of young children who would benefit from early education places at the age of two: e.g. disabled children, children with special educational needs…looked after children, and children with English as an additional language. Does the Government intend that these children will be covered by the extension of the free offer?”
We could, of course, save ourselves a lot of effort if the Government allowed us to have the draft regulations to explain how the powers will be used. The definition of disadvantage, as with many things in the Bill, will be contained within the regulations that will follow.
The Government should be able—Ministers have said in the past that they are keen to do so, both in opposition and in government—to provide draft regulations by the time provisions are discussed in Committee, that is, now. If they cannot provide the draft regulations, they should be able to provide a detailed note of how those regulations will be drafted, to explain what is intended. Will the Minister explain why he has not been able to produce those draft regulations for us this morning? When does he expect them to be ready? Will he publish a broader timetable for the publication of the many regulations in relation to this Bill? What is his broad intention on the provision of draft regulations beyond this particular clause?
Mr Stuart: During an interesting debate last week on children’s centres, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), when speaking about early intervention, explicitly said that we need to redistribute public spending
Kevin Brennan: I certainly agree that we need to focus, as the previous Labour Government did, on the early years. It is a recognition that the terms of trade of the debate have changed in recent years that the Government are making this welcome provision to extend early years provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds. We all know the importance of that. The broader debate about the redistribution of funds from older to younger is another matter. I will carefully study the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, but I agree with the broad thrust of the importance of investing in the early years. I am glad, because the importance of early years was, not that long ago, in the political wilderness. It has now become part of the political consensus, to a limited extent. It is not helped, however, by cutting the funding available to children’s centres. We will see the impact of that over the next year or two.
Mr Stuart: Just to press the hon. Gentleman on that point, given the state of the public finances, if he wishes to will the end, he must will the means. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead had the courage to say so. It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to say, however grudgingly he uses the words, that he accepts a £380 million additional spend on the most disadvantaged two-year-olds without giving us any idea what his party feels should be the priorities of limited and finite spending between the age ranges. He owes the Committee and the public greater clarity on that.
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman knows that on our side—I think that you, Mr Williams, will row us back from this in a moment—the view is that the Government are being reckless on the extent to which they are cutting the public’s finances. They are cutting too far, too fast and, because of the damage that the cuts are doing to our macro-economy, our economic recovery is being put at risk and the potential for the public purse to generate revenue in the future is being damaged. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am sure that if we went into a general debate about the public finances, Mr Williams, you would quickly draw us back to clause 1 and, in particular, to amendments 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. It is my task to explain those to the Committee and ask for a response from the Minister. Much as I enjoy jousting with the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness on those issues, I had better get back to the amendments before I am told to do so.
Let me return to amendment 6, which I was discussing when the hon. Gentleman intervened. In addition to the draft regulations, we do not have the special educational needs Green Paper. If we are fully to understand the implications of many of the changes in the Bill, including the extension to disadvantaged children of early years provision, we need to have sight of the Government’s Green Paper at the earliest opportunity. I heard yesterday that it will be a very green Green Paper. I am not quite sure what that means—perhaps, to mix metaphors, that it will contain very blue-sky thinking.
On a serious point, in order to scrutinise the Bill properly we need to know the Government’s thinking on the future of special educational needs. Will the Minister tell the Committee? There were rumours yesterday that it would be published today, rumours last week that it would be published then, rumours six months ago that it would be published at that time; I think the Government’s original intention was that it would be published last year. I know that the Minister will tell us that it will be published in the spring, or something of that kind. We would like to know, in the spring of which year? We would also like to know the civil service and ministerial definition of spring and how many months have to expire before we reach summer. We would be very interested if the Minister could tell us, because it is directly relevant to extending early years provision to disadvantaged pupils.
Our intention is to get the Minister to put on record, in the clearest terms possible, the definition that the Government intend to use and any justification they have for not including all the groups contained within the definition in the Department’s own document.
Kevin Brennan: Yes, I can. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the job of the Opposition is to probe the Government by tabling amendments in order to get clear responses. As I mentioned earlier, the categories listed in amendment 6 are those contained in the Government’s research publication—the Department’s, I should say, since it was published before the current Government came into power—“Towards universal early years provision: analysis of take-up by disadvantaged families from recent annual childcare surveys”, published in November 2009. In order to probe the Government by way of this amendment, it is obviously necessary to lay down possible parameters for the selection and to hear what the Minister has to say. That is how those categories were selected to be included.
Richard Fuller: The amendment not only probes but focuses attention on those seven groups. If the amendment were to be accepted, would that not mean that the Minister would be required to focus particularly on those seven groups, rather than the circumstances, which might change from time to time, enabling the Minister to decide where the focus ought to be?
Kevin Brennan: The categories in the amendment, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are those who have been assessed by local authorities as having special educational needs; those who speak English as an additional language; those in care of the local authority; those whose family income is less than £20,000 per annum; those whose family includes three or more children aged 0 to 14; those who live in one of the 20% most disadvantaged areas of the country; or those who live in rented accommodation. That is deliberately a fairly broad spectrum from the report and I do not think that it would tie the Minister’s hands.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and, as it is my first contribution, I will also say bore da to the Chair. Does my hon. Friend agree that the critical wording here is “must include”? It does not mean that everyone else would be excluded, but that one of the things that we as a country need to learn from the introduction of Sure Start is how disadvantage was originally calculated, and a broader understanding of the difficulties we may want to target. The amendment would not exclude the consideration of other groups, but states the priorities. One of the reasons for tabling such amendments is to ensure that such priorities are understood and recognised by the Government when we talk about disadvantage.
Kevin Brennan: I wondered how long it would take before we got to the age-old “must” or “may” issue that always arise in discussing legislation. It has taken us half an hour on this occasion, but I do not think that that is a record.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The word “must” is a key word in the amendment. It would mean that the Minister would have to include the criteria, but they would not necessarily be an exclusive list. Our intention is to get the Government to put on record in the clearest terms the definition that he intends to use and any justification he has for not referring to the criteria contained in the Department’s own document. I look forward to the Minister’s response to amendment 6.
Amendment 7 is also contained in the grouping. It is a probing amendment to understand why the Secretary of State deems it necessary to take powers to decide how much and when early-years provision should take place. The Minister referred to that in an earlier intervention, and notwithstanding what he said, the provisions appear to give greater powers to the Secretary of State to make regulation to specify when and the period in which early-years provision must be made available. In the absence of draft regulations, it is difficult to know exactly what the Government intend to do with the additional powers that they are asking for.
I am not the only one saying that. People outside the Committee have raised concerns. The NUT said that it is concerned that local authorities’ current duty to secure sufficiency of child care in their areas may be undermined by the proposed regulations, which would specify how much provision should be made available and when that provision would take place. Will the Minister explain in full the thinking behind the provision and why it is necessary to include it in the Bill? When will the draft regulations in relation to the clause appear, and why are they not before us this morning?
Amendment 8, probes the quality of the new provision that the Government intend to supply under clause 1. It seeks to press the Government on their intentions on the quality of early-years provision. It is worth reflecting on the consensus that the reforms of recent years have helped to create, and which now appear to exist broadly across political parties, on the crucial role of early-years provision, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, mentioned in his intervention, and the impact that that has on the educational attainment of children, on health inequalities and social mobility. We need to know that a
Save the Children has said that there is a need to increase the quality of education and care, especially in light of the Government’s decision to relax the qualifications required by early-years workers in deprived areas. The National Children’s Bureau has said that there is a need to guarantee that the provision is high quality. It asked whether the Government will
The amendment would place a requirement on Her Majesty’s chief inspector to report to Parliament on the quality of provision made free to two-year-olds within 12 months of the commencement of section 1 of the Education Act.
Her Majesty’s chief inspector has found that early years provision performs well. Some 20,000 two-year-olds are able to access the early years free entitlement. The Government are planning a large increase through this clause, which is welcome, but the point of the amendments is to explore whether local government has the ability to commission the new provision. Alternatively, do the Government think that most of the additional children, who are currently in paid nursery provision, will come from disadvantaged families? I do not think that that is the case. Do local authorities have the capacity to commission sufficient high quality provision and ensure that that provision is of a good enough quality within 12 months of the clause being enacted? Any advantage of extending this early years provision would be lost if there is not an absolute guarantee that it will be of the highest quality. Our amendment would ensure that that was the case.
Meg Munn: In addition to the issue of quality, can my hon. Friend see, within the legislation or his amendment, how the Government intend to ensure that it is the children whom they are aiming at who are reached by the provision? As we know, some of the types of disadvantage, which were specified in his earlier amendment, can mean that families are called—it is not a nice term—“hard to reach”. How does he envisage that happening and is he confident that the legislation deals with that point?
Kevin Brennan: Yes. It is always difficult to say whether someone is hard to reach or whether the services are not well enough designed to reach them. The Government, in the note that they issued yesterday, which arrived with us at 4.34 pm, have said something about who will receive the additional early years provision. I am sure that the Minister will want to expand upon that in his response to this group of amendments. My hon. Friend raises a key point on how we ensure that it is those who are disadvantaged and who need these services who are the ones who receive them. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s response.
Mr Stuart: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to take part in the scrutiny of this important Bill. As has been mentioned by the shadow Minister, the extension of early child
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention that a lot of work was done by the previous Government on looking at early intervention, as well as by former and current Labour MPs, such as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and, of course, Alan Milburn. There is broad political consensus on the desire to target disadvantaged youngsters and make a difference. I chaired an event a few weeks ago with professors of psychology and education, looking at how children learn. If memory serves, Professor Goswami from Cambridge university said that the difference in the number of words that a child had been exposed to by the age of four ranged from 4 million in the poorest households to some 12 million in the richest. Some children have literally no interaction. They have not had an adult talking to them and stimulating their brains, to put in place the basic mechanisms from which to learn. It is essential that we target and provide stimulus to children at risk of being left behind.
Given the financial context, the Government deserve more than the slightly grudging words of the shadow Minister, however understandable they might be politically. After 13 years of the previous Government, and despite the financial wreckage left behind, this Government are increasing the number of places from 20,000 to 130,000 in this Parliament. That is important. The shadow Minister was right to ask about the criteria in the note. I cannot remember what time it came out yesterday—that was barely mentioned. I did not see the note until this morning.
Mr Stuart: I think I first saw it about 10.57 am. It gives those figures of 20,000 to 130,000. That was welcome, but we need to know what the criteria will be? By the end of this Parliament, the cost will be £380 million, which is extremely substantial. One area where a controversial decision has been made is the education maintenance allowance. My Committee is investigating participation by 16 to 19-year-olds, and we want to look at the evidence, scrutinise the various people who have researched the matter and calculate what negative impact that decision will have. Undoubtedly, there will be a negative impact to an extent, and we must examine whether that will affect 5%, 10% or more of young people of that age who then fall out. If MPs from all parties wish to show not only that they will the end but that they wish the means, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said last week, we must accept that we have finite resources and are looking to redistribute from the higher age ranges down to the lower age ranges. Therefore, we should celebrate the £380 million extra put towards disadvantaged two-year-olds.
Meg Munn: This is a significant investment, but is not the point that it is an investment, not a cost? The cost comes from not helping children to reach their full potential. I agree that there is real benefit to be had from the investment and from seeing that the money
Mr Stuart: The hon. Lady is right, which brings me to my concern about making the investment work. We agree that it should be right, and we have evidence that effective high-quality intervention makes a tremendous difference. It means that a child exposed to a few words is exposed to more, that their brain is better developed and that they arrive at school “school ready”. That child is able to learn and progress. They do not need remedial work further in their careers because they are learning and progressing. It is essential to ensure that the intervention works. The previous Government willed this investment. They put in the funds, did not fiddle numbers and made a real expenditure. However, the Durham university study suggested that despite that vast investment, the school readiness of children at age five did not show the signs of improvement one would have hoped for. I believe, as I am sure the hon. Lady believes, that we should work harder to make things work better. We should not drop the strategy; it must be right to intervene at the earliest possible stage so that children arrive school ready and are able to learn.
Meg Munn: One of the crucially important issues for children entering school concerns not only what help and provision they get, but their experiences at home. Children spend a great deal more time at home. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about care, support and education for two-year-olds, but about the overall investment that the previous Government gave a lot to, particularly with Sure Start?
Mr Stuart: Yes. Sticking to the amendment and to the issue of early intervention for two-year-olds, the point is to get the quality right. I hope the Minister will be able to give us more on the criteria for selecting the two-year-olds than was in the note but, in the light of the shadow Minister’s questions, we ought to recognise that the Government said they were “absolutely committed” to keeping free provision for all three and four-year-olds, for 15 hours a week, 38 weeks a year. That should be extremely welcome and nail any fears. We do not want anyone outside this place to fear that the Government are seeking to get rid of that provision, when they clearly are not.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West described amendment 6 as probing, to tease out the criteria. As the amendment stands, giving any child living in rented accommodation access to the same provision as a disadvantaged two-year-old strikes me as a rather poor idea. Many children in rented accommodation are far from disadvantaged.
The amendment, however, would be valuable in targeting children who speak English as an additional language. There are concentrations of them, and an income-based assessment might miss out such children, for whom early intervention and exposure from the age of two can make a difference to school readiness and ability to go on. That would be valuable.
On amendment 7, the hon. Member for Cardiff West spoke, as he always does, with wit and verve. Yet, despite examples from the Minister, the hon. Gentleman was unable to come forward with anything more than bold assertions about how, when he was a Minister, everything was specified to the nth degree—but not a single example came from his lips. As far as I can tell, amendment 7 does not fit in with how the previous Government behaved, and the regulations appear to be in line with earlier legislation, so the Government do not deserve to be criticised.
Amendment 8 talks about the quality of early years provision made free of charge to two-year-olds. Not only is quality important for the additional investment of £380 million, by the end of the Parliament, to do good, but there is evidence that poor-quality provision can be harmful. Quality of provision is essential—we might hope that merely having a professional working with two-year-olds would do some good regardless, but there is some evidence that poor-quality provision could be worse than no provision at all, which is pretty worrying.
Although I am sure the amendment is probing, the Select Committee and Ofsted should be watching carefully to ensure not only that we do not simply spend the money, tick the box and have the headline showing the commitment, but that we follow through with whatever regulatory or other measures are necessary to ensure the quality of provision. All of us, throughout the House, need to ensure that the investment made in early years—which is significant, and ought to be celebrated—does more than suit a political imperative, but actually makes a difference to some of the poorest children in our land who, for so long, have been let down.
We already have clear guidance and regulation about the ratio of staff to children in day care provision. That is well specified. However, the development and extension of child care that took place—quite dramatically, I must say—during the 13 years of the Labour Government posed some particular challenges. Rightly, a range of new providers came in—from the private sector, as well as the public sector—meaning that staff were taken on, some not especially experienced. There was a wide range of issues about the quality of care provided, in particular when looking at educational development.
For young children—even into statutory school age—we do not separate the play and care elements from the educational elements. The measure, under this and the previous Government, is focused on children who are
When we extended provision to three and four-year-olds and we introduced the entitlement to free care, a great deal of effort had to be made, not just at the point of monitoring or when Ofsted came in and said, “Yes, you’re doing a good job”, or “You need to work on this area better”, or “You need to develop this”. With the guidance and support of Government, local authorities started to employ people specifically to support that development, with staff whose job was to go round and check up on the quality of provision and provide advice and guidance. Many of those posts are probably under threat because of the cuts that are coming to local authorities.
I want to understand how the Government will ensure proper support and that proper standards are enforced to make sure that the investment achieves everything that we want it to do. Will the Minister tell us whether there is an intention alongside the provision of extra care and education for two-year-olds to provide further guidance and information about what is expected? What type of care will they receive? Will there be new guidance for Ofsted on inspection? I am very supportive of the thrust of the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said it is a probing amendment, and I support having some sort of report back. None of us ever wants to see public money wasted, but perhaps now more than ever we want to be in a position where we see investment go in, where it is given priority and the quality of care, education and stimulation is good and leads to real outcomes that are positive for children in the long term.
Mr Stuart: Does the hon. Lady agree with me? I hope that those working with two-year-olds will work closely with health visitors and make sure that there is a continuum from health visitors in the early months of life right through to two-year-olds. Does she, like me, celebrate and welcome the addition of health visitors announced by the Government, and deplore the collapse in the numbers of health visitors and the loss of the universal health visiting service that unfortunately happened under the previous Administration?
Meg Munn: I sense that the hon. Gentleman is tempting me wide of the amendment, and I will not be tempted down that route other than to say that the previous Government’s approach, which I hope will continue, was for all services to work together. The development of children’s centres, whether in health, education or social work, was about a place where professionals could come together to support the holistic needs of the child. Here, we are looking at the extension of free provision, which enables educational development. However, as I said earlier, for children of this age, perhaps more than any other, we cannot separate all those elements.
Developmentally, children vary enormously in their abilities between the ages of two and four. It has been some years since I was a social work practitioner, so I may be a bit rusty on all this, but certainly, at the age of two, we could get such a wide range of abilities that the
I would like briefly—I do not want to go too wide of the amendment—to mention that we have had some dreadful cases recently of young children being abused in day care. I want to seek reassurance that as part of considering quality, we are looking at the proper integration of child protection, the way in which children are worked with, and whether the training provided for staff who work with children is sufficient to do everything possible to ensure that children are properly protected.
First, generally speaking, we welcome anything that moves provision towards early intervention. There is a huge body of evidence that supports the view that the earlier we intervene with disadvantaged children, the better their outcomes. Evidence shows that gaps between the most advantaged and least advantaged children start to open up from 22 months, so provision for children in early years from 24 months is a step in the right direction. Having been on the receiving end of legislation and having had to try to make it work in reality, I know that the more specific the legislation, the easier it is to do that. I have, on too many occasions, experienced schools and local authorities that have taken legislation and gone off at a tangent to do things. Once they have gone off, it is hard to pull them back.
If the Government have a clear intention to create a provision for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds and universal provision for three and four-year-olds, I do not think that there is a problem in saying so. Clearly, there are concerns that a future Secretary of State could limit that provision for the most disadvantaged two to five-year-olds, but if that is not the Government’s intention, there is no problem in coming out clearly and saying that.
Regarding amendment 6, which is about definitions, experience again tells me that if the criteria are not defined specifically, there will be confusion and, in some cases, manipulation. I have come across schools where funding that was specifically for learning support units was used to build a new library. That was the intention of neither Parliament nor the local authority, but pulling back from that is difficult. Some pupil referral units have told me, “We do not have any children with behavioural difficulties here.” Anyone in the room would recognise that such units are specifically for children who have been excluded or have behavioural and other difficulties. Where terms are not defined, we get confusion and, in some cases, manipulation.
Richard Fuller: I am listening intently to the hon. Lady. The phrase “pupil referral unit” has always sounded odd; it is quite exclusionary itself. There is a concern about the measures—I listened to the debate on “must” and “may”—in relation to people who are excluded. In my constituency, we are particularly concerned about
Pat Glass: It comes back to what was said earlier. The clause is intended to be inclusive and not to exclude any particular children. If there is a good reason within a local authority or school for including a group of children, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot be included.
Richard Fuller: I appreciate that, but the amendment proposes certain areas of focus. It is beholden on those who support the amendment to explain why other needy groups are not included. We heard in written evidence about children who are carers. They are not included. Is that an omission as well?
Kevin Brennan: I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s remark about pupil referral units, but the Bill will restore the name “pupil referral unit”, which the previous Government changed to “short stay schools”.
Pat Glass: I thank my hon. Friend for that. What I am trying to say is that the more specific the measures, the less possibility that they will be manipulated or misinterpreted against Parliament’s intentions. Clearly, the group is not an exclusive group. Within different local authorities and different areas, different groups of children will be considered disadvantaged.
Mr Stuart: That last point seemed to contradict the hon. Lady’s main point, which involved asking for a specific top-down prescription. It seems to me that the Government could rightly be challenged on their belief in localism and trusting the front line by a suggestion that the guidance pass the matter to local authorities. Let them decide, give them a sum of money and give them the responsibility for ensuring that they reach out to their local population of children most likely to turn up at school not ready and sort them out in the best possible way. Then we would have a laboratory of people who could share best practice, rather than a top-down, highly specified approach.
Pat Glass: These things are always fraught with difficulties. That is what I am trying to say to the Minister. On the ground, the people who must make the measures work will find it incredibly difficult. Some years ago, we were considering the funding formula in a local authority, and we specifically included children for whom English was not a first language, with exactly the intentions mentioned earlier. When the funding formula hit the ground in schools, we found that because one area in the local authority had a large Japanese manufacturing company, one school had many children whose parents held senior management posts in the firm and came from Japan. Suddenly, the formula was skewed, and huge amounts of money were going to a relatively small number of children who were not disadvantaged in any way.
Pat Glass: I am saying that we need an inclusive amendment within a framework. Clearly, within the framework, such children are disadvantaged in most cases, but we must have some discretion on the ground for the people who are trying to make it work.
Stella Creasy: I am interested in the last intervention. According to that logic, there would be no criteria at all, yet the Government are consulting on criteria, which will be in the regulation guidelines. One challenge for us is that without more clarity about how to define disadvantage and an understanding that a broad range of categories might need to be included in order to overcome some of the issues that the my hon. Friend mentioned, everyone and anyone could be included.
Pat Glass: This is not the first time that provision has been made for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Some local authorities have been making such provision for some time, and those that have would tell my hon. Friend that a framework that defines, or gives some definition of, disadvantage prevents parents coming along and saying, “My child would benefit from this.” All children would benefit from such provision: it is about helping the most disadvantaged children, who would, therefore, benefit the most.
Finally, I want to address quality. Early years provision is, by definition, about education and care. It is about getting that balance right. We do not always get it right: I am aware of examples of both early years provision and special needs provision that are defined as outstanding by Ofsted—and in terms of their care, they are—but when one analyses the quality of the educational outcomes they are far from what would be desired.
I support the amendment. We need to have a report that regularly looks at the quality of provision. We know that for disadvantaged two-year-olds the gaps open up at 22 months. If the provision for developing language into literacy, providing a rich vocabulary and learning from play is not of a good quality, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has said, it may do damage. Such provision not only has to be there; it has to be of a good quality. We need to monitor and check that on a regular basis. In general, we welcome the Bill’s provisions, but it has to be within that framework.
Stella Creasy: I want to speak to amendment 6, which addresses one of our concerns. During the course of our discussions this morning we have highlighted some of the problems with not setting out what we mean by tackling disadvantage. It is apparent that it can be too easy to exclude groups, and we also want to know how these provisions will work in practice. I want to speak from my experience of such issues on the ground, from the local authority perspective when Sure Start was first introduced. I will give some of the definitions that were used then, so that I can show why it is so important for us to understand what the Government are trying to do and to understand their thinking.
I note from the now famous note, which I first read at 4.54 pm last night—I did not get to it as early as some of my colleagues—that there is some talk of the Government’s initial thinking on the eligibility criteria. The amendment seeks to address those criteria and push for a bit more information. Many Members have already made important points about how we might make this work on the ground.
I am particularly struck by the comments made by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, not least because I tried to make Sure Start work in an area that met a range of such criteria. There were large numbers of children with English as a second language, as well as large numbers of children who went on to be diagnosed with special educational needs or who clearly had special educational needs very early on. We faced a number of issues in trying to build wrap-around services for them.
One of my concerns is that the broader context of the Bill will unpick some of the relationships that are needed from a very early age to be able to make such projects work—the relationships that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has said he wants to see on the ground. Therefore one of the ways we can ensure such thinking happens is by being clear about what we mean by disadvantage and the groups that we might want to work with.
As we have already discussed, there is not only a semantic point in the amendment’s important use of the word “must” in that it does not preclude other groups and other ways of working at a local level, but a very clear direction for local authorities, which in the past have struggled with understanding disadvantage. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham set out very clearly what the implications on the ground have been in the past.
Mr Stuart: I wonder whether the Government should have been more radical and whether the hon. Lady would have had any sympathy for them if they had. The aim is not to provide nursery education for two-year-olds from a disadvantaged background; it is to ensure that children who are currently at risk of turning up at school not school-ready, unable to learn and ending up with a life blighted thereafter, do not do so. Therefore, should the Government have been more radical and looked to give the local authority the money and the resources and told them “Your aim is to reduce the number of children who turn up at school unable to learn”, rather than prescribing some particular provision which chases after the problem?
Stella Creasy: It is an interesting debate. I am aware of the path that the dulcet tones of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness may be leading us down. I would be happy to discuss it with him, not least because I have my own concerns about how some of the data on early years intervention and the impact on young children of a lack of attention from a psychological perspective, have been interpreted in some of the debates on early years provision. However, I am conscious that that takes us away from the point and I would not want to upset the Chair.
My concern as a London MP is that badly set out measures of disadvantage have inadvertently damaged our ability to deliver services at a local level. I am
Waltham Forest is a borough that merits reassessment of whether it is an outer or inner London borough in view of some of the problems we have dealt with. However, we are classed as outer London and although we have large numbers of children who would fit all the categories mentioned in the debate, we would not necessarily secure the funding required for these proposals without that clarification. There is talk in the fabled note that the free school meals criterion, with which one might want to draw a parallel, will also change. That creates a huge element of uncertainty in planning and providing services within Sure Start, particularly in planning for the new services provided for in the Bill.
I therefore urge the Minister not to wait until the regulatory process to set out what disadvantage is and where the Government’s thinking is on this. He should give a clearer direction to local authorities who are facing huge cuts in their budgets and who are therefore making incredibly difficult choices as it is about the provision of early years when they are planning ahead—obviously good services are planned ahead—about the kinds of young people and families whose needs they will be addressing with this additional funding.
A positive response to the amendment would be to set out what work the Department has done so far. I appreciate that the note we have been given starts to do that, but it raises more questions than it answers by saying that a number of the criteria that we might use will change and only an initial part of the work has been done. That is quite worrying to Opposition Members who recognise the merits of early intervention but also recognise the broader merits of providing universal services alongside targeted work.
Mr Gibb: This has been a good and interesting debate. We have covered a lot of issues in clause 1 in great detail. It has been a useful start to the consultation process that I will talk about in a moment. I welcome the commitment from the hon. Member for Cardiff West to scrutinise the Bill in a reasonable way. I, too, look forward to all Members’ contributions to the debate as we proceed.
I shall speak first to amendments 4 to 8. The Government have decided to prioritise funding for early years and child development because of the difference we know it makes in the long term to social justice, social mobility and children’s life chances. Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the introduction of the fairness premium, £7 billion of additional funding to give the poorest children the chance to succeed. The first part of this premium is extra funding so that the most disadvantaged two-year-olds have access to 15 hours a week of free early education. I pay tribute to the tireless work that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Children and Families has been doing in this area and her continued commitment to improving the prospects of children in this country.
Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): I welcome the fact that the Government are providing 15 hours a week of nursery education. However, I would like the Minister to comment on the flexibility of such a provision. St Catherine’s primary school in my constituency has worked in that area and, because it has found that the nursery is a class within the school, it spends a great deal of time trying to fit within the framework of 15 hours’ provision a week. It will be interesting to see whether we can allow some flexibility, rather than be prescriptive.
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend raises a very good point. That issue will be addressed in a later clause, on which he will be able to raise the matter again, and I hope to give him more assurances about flexibility when we move on to that debate.
The total funding for free places for disadvantaged two-year-olds will rise to £380 million by 2014-15, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness. That will result in about 110,000 extra places, in addition to the 20,000 places that are currently funded. The funding for early intervention will provide the building blocks for the pupil premium, and it is vital to give disadvantaged children the head start that they need in life.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West cited several third party and third sector organisations, such as the Daycare Trust, which supports the aims of the Bill on early-years provision, and welcomes the Government’s commitment to provide 15 hours of free early-years provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds, which is in addition to the current provision of free places for three and four-year-olds. Save the Children stated:
I will come on to that point, which was raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. The National Children’s Bureau, the Early Childhood Forum and the Children’s Society have welcomed the extension of free early education places to two-year-olds from disadvantaged families, and UNICEF UK has welcomed
“clauses in the Bill that aim to secure additional provision and support for children at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, including the expansion of free early years provision for disadvantaged two year-olds”.
On amendments 4 and 5, section 7 of the Childcare Act 2006 requires local authorities to provide free early education for all children of an age prescribed in regulations. I cited the original section 7 to the hon. Member for Cardiff West earlier. The regulations made under section 7 require local authorities to secure 15 hours free early education for all three and four-years-olds, and we have made a commitment to retain that. Clause 1 will substitute a new section 7 in the 2006 Act, which will enable us to extend the entitlement of free early education to disadvantaged two-year-olds by ensuring that regulations can create an entitlement based not only on age, but on other criteria as well. Unlike the current entitlement for 20,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds, that will be a statutory entitlement. Last week, I sent the Committee a policy statement that outlined our intentions for the regulations we will make in relation to clause 1. The statement again confirmed that the entitlement for three and four-years-olds will remain the same.
Kevin Brennan: Would any regulations be technically possible under the new section that are not technically possible under the current section to enable a future Minister to introduce a criterion for three and four-years-olds based not on the universal entitlement of age, but on disadvantage or other factors? In other words, will the new section result in a substantive change?
“An English local authority must secure that early years provision of a prescribed description is available free of charge for such periods as may be prescribed for each young child in their area who…has attained such age as may be prescribed, but…is under compulsory school age.”
Given the prescriptive nature of that section, it would not have been possible to use that legislation to create regulations that extended early-years provision only to a proportion of children of a prescribed age who were disadvantaged. The only way we, or any Government, could extend free child care provision for two-year-olds would be to extend it to all two-year-olds as a statutory entitlement. The previous Administration tackled the issue through a pilot, but there was no statutory entitlement. We are intent on making free provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds a statutory entitlement, which is why we have had to change the wording of section 7 of the 2006 Act.
Let me say something about the delivery of the note at 4.34 pm. Our intention is to circulate notes well in advance. The note was submitted on 4 March, once we had been able to reflect on the first week of the evidence Committee. I am happy, with the Chairman’s approval, to copy notes to Members at the same time as they are formally submitted as evidence to the Committee. I hope that that will reduce any delays. It certainly was not our intention for the note to be delayed.
Let me reassure the Committee in words of one syllable, or perhaps two or three syllables, that the Government are fully committed to retaining an entitlement that is free for all three and four-year-olds. Indeed, from last September, the free provision that three and four-year-old children are entitled to was extended from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week. That was confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his spending review announcement in October, which made it clear that the funding for this extension has been protected for the rest of the spending review period.
I appreciate what hon. Members are trying to achieve with amendments 4 and 5, and I know that protecting the existing universal entitlement for three and four-year-olds is supported by Members on both sides of the House, but it is not appropriate to include such detail in primary legislation. Eligibility criteria will be set out in regulations, as is the case with the regulations already made under the current section 7. In fact, the text of the amendment is a copy of what is currently in those regulations.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Such debates about how detailed the instructions in a Bill should be occur quite often in Committee, and we had them many times under the previous Government. The approach I always took then was that if a Bill sought to restrict how people operated in some way, I would be cautious of giving it my support without seeing as much information as possible in that legislation. However, we can be a
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; he sets out the case better than I have so far. As he says, we are talking about an extension, not a restriction of provision. Hon. Members should be reassured by what I have said today and by what was in the note that was sent to the Committee at 4.34 pm yesterday.
Meg Munn: In one respect, it is reassuring to hear the hon. Member for North Cornwall set out his Liberal persuasions, if I can put it like that. However, although we are talking about an extension, we all know that it must, by its very nature, be restricted, so our questions are about how it will be restricted. The hon. Gentleman may feel that he can give the Government the benefit of the doubt, but the Opposition do not feel quite so confident.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I think I have made it clear—I will do so as many times as she wishes in the debate—that we do not intend to restrict provision for three and four-year-olds in any way. Indeed, we have extended it from 12.5 hours to 15 hours, and that is confirmed throughout the period of the spending review. The purpose of the clause is to extend provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the definition of eligibility and what counts as disadvantage, and that is the purpose of amendment 6. We intend to consult, and although the statutory duty on local authorities will not come into force until 2013—it is important to make the point that the statutory entitlement will not come into effect until 2013—we intend to consult on regulations at the earliest opportunity so that local authorities know what is expected of them and they have the time to plan and build capacity with early years providers.
The first stage of the process will be consultation with the sector in the autumn, followed by formal consultation on the regulations next year. The process will cover not just eligibility criteria, but other aspects of the policy—for example, the quality of the provision that should be used. I know that that is important for the hon. Lady. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness and the hon. Members for Cardiff West and for North West Durham.
Stella Creasy: Does the Minister envisage that during the consultation the criteria set out in the amendment would not be included in any of the points raised? Does he expect the categories to be included in the definition of disadvantage that might come out of that consultation? If not, will he explain why? For example, on the point made by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, does he expect children with English as a second language to be one of the criteria that come out of that consultation?
Mr Gibb: I shall come to individual points about the amendment in a moment. I want to refer hon. Members again to the policy statement on the clause that we sent out yesterday and the regulations that we will make under it. In our statement, we set out some of the detail
The policy statement also explains our proposed eligibility criteria, which will be set out in the regulations. Crucially, it explains how we want to focus on those children who have the most disadvantaged start in life. I hope that hon. Members found that policy statement helpful, albeit that they have had only a few hours to read it, but it is only three or four pages.
Amendment 6 will set out in the legislation eligibility criteria for the extension of the free early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds. I will briefly go through the seven criteria that the amendment suggests. It refers to children with special education need, and we will consult in due course on the exact criteria to be used to define disadvantage. They could well include one of the criteria that come out of the consultation.
On having English as an additional language, assessing all two-year-olds to determine whether they speak English as an additional language would be a huge bureaucratic burden, but I understand the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness. If that is an issue that comes out of the consultation, of course we will take those views seriously, but the hon. Member for North West Durham referred to the children of car company executives who attended a local school and who spoke English as a second language, but were not disadvantaged. We must be careful that we do not inadvertently include in criteria children who are not from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to be all-encompassing.
On families with an income of less than £20,000, our preferred criteria, as hon. Members know, is that that matches the criteria for free school meals, which encompasses some working families on a low income. In due course, when the universal credit comes in, we will have to make adjustments to such criteria to reflect the fact that the benefits system has been simplified.
A family with three or more children aged nought to 14 is one of the criteria in amendment 6, but a larger than average number of children does not mean that a family is automatically struggling financially. The sixth criterion is a family living in one of the most disadvantaged areas as defined by the index of multiple deprivation. That is too crude a measure. Many hon. Members who represent inner-London boroughs are familiar with the fact that there are deprived households living side by side with some of the wealthiest families in the country. The next criterion is families in rented accommodation. Well, not everyone who lives in rented accommodation is financially disadvantaged. Analysis of census data by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that people in professional and higher technical occupations make up more than one sixth of all those in private rented accommodation.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady asks an important question. We will be publishing the SEN and disability Green Paper very shortly. Hon. Members have asked about its timing, but protocol does not allow me to provide the exact date. I think hon. Members will be pleased with the timeliness with which it is published, which will be imminently. I hope that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members will wait for it.
Amendment 6 seeks to incorporate into primary legislation eligibility criteria for the extension of the free early education entitlement. That is not an appropriate use of primary legislation. Statistics show that 44% of children living in the most deprived areas achieve a “good level of development” compared with 69% of children living in the least deprived areas. That impact is discernible throughout a child’s school life—pupils who start off in the lowest 20% of attainment at age five are six times more likely to be in the lowest 20% at age seven compared with their peers. That difference has been brought up by other hon. Members during the debate.
One thing that has been shown to close the attainment gap at age five is participation in high-quality part-time early education. That is especially important for disadvantaged children as, although its effects are positive across socio-economic groups, the gains are greater for them, and initially it helps the lowest group to move above the minimum expected reading and writing levels at key stage 1.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I hope that I am not repeating something that has been said already, but I find it difficult to hear in this room. I want to raise three points: first, the use of the term “family” when talking about “family income” or families with any number of children. It is irrelevant terminology because I suspect we are talking about household income. Family income can include that of parents in different places, and families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It may be that there are different arrangements in different households, so we should look at households.
I would particularly like to pick up the point about rented accommodation. I am not entirely sure how the amendment seeks to define those in need by just referring to rented accommodation, because, as far as I am aware, there is no register of leasehold premises. I have two homes: one here in London, which is rented, and another in my constituency, which is rented. I would not define eligibility purely in terms of whether property is rented. I know several chief executives of large companies who rent properties for the sake of having to be in a particular location for, perhaps, a year, so it is an irrelevance.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention. She has raised some of the practical difficulties that the consultation process will address as we seek to define eligibility. We believe that there are strong arguments for using the criteria that are currently applied to assess eligibility for free school meals. That approach would be relatively straightforward for local authorities to implement.
Kevin Brennan: The Minister has indicated in his note that eligibility for free school meals may be used as a basis for assessing disadvantage for this purpose. What percentage of two-year-olds would currently be in receipt of free school meals? Perhaps he will address that in the course of his remarks, although I appreciate that he may not have the figure to hand. What estimate have the Government made of the impact that their benefit changes will have on the percentage of two-year-olds who are likely to have free school meals after the planned changes?
Mr Gibb: On the first point, two-year-olds are not entitled to free school meals, so one has to use the eligibility criteria that would apply to somebody who was entitled to free school meals, which I think is what the hon. Gentleman is asking. I believe that the national average of free school meal eligibility across the school population is 20%, so one can assume that that same proportion will apply to two-year-olds.
The hon. Gentleman has also raised an important point about the fundamental reforms to the benefit system that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is implementing. They will require us to redefine the eligibility for some of the passport benefits that are currently triggered by eligibility for free school meals. That is something that we are looking at, and we will consult on and discuss it in due course.
Mr Stuart: As has been discussed, we are making a great investment of £380 million in this extended support for disadvantaged two-year-olds. The Minister has said that the purpose is to try to close the gap between outcomes from children from poor areas and others. Hopefully, this will target those from disadvantaged backgrounds regardless of where they come from. What would he regard as a successful outcome? I would hate to see this sort of provision frozen for all time as a political football that we must never get rid of, if it turns out that it has not made the difference that we need. We need to focus on outcomes primarily, not on entitlements.
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend raises a good point, and we will learn more about this when the Tickell review reports. From my own perspective, we want children to be ready for school. I visited an early years’ centre on Friday. Some two-year-olds were there as part of the pilot, and it was clear from the parents whom I met that those children had gained enormously from being in that setting at a young age. That is the kind of improved development and attainment that we want to see as a consequence of this large investment in funding.
Mr Stuart: What would that look like? Can my hon. Friend give us any figures? What sort of percentage change do we seek? Have the Government made an assessment of the likely impact over time so that we can
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we are spending public money, we need to ensure that the public receive value for that money. In a moment I will discuss the provisions of amendment 7, which partially addresses such matters. My hon. Friend is of course the Chair of a very powerful Select Committee, and he might want to investigate this area.
Pat Glass: Before the Minister moves on, I seek a clarification. I think that I heard him say that in terms of disadvantage, the Government were looking at children who are on free school meals. Does the Minister agree that a child who is blind at two years old would be considered disadvantaged, or a child with autism? These are the very children who would benefit incredibly from early education.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a very good point and I hope such issues will come out in the consultation, but a disproportionate number of children with special educational needs also qualify for free school meals, so there is overlap between the two criteria.
Stella Creasy: If free schools meals is to be the measure used to calculate disadvantage, what assessment has the Minister made of some of the problems we have seen in primary and secondary education over take-up of free school meals and identifying who is eligible, especially at that early age, with families with a first child not knowing to what they are entitled? What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the traditionally lower take-up of free school meals on the use of this criterion to target those young people?
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a very good point. This was a problem that existed under the previous Administration and it will continue to be a problem under this Administration, but we are seeing an increase in take-up of free school meals as a consequence of the announcement of the pupil premium. Schools and local authorities are now actively encouraging those who are eligible for them to take up free school meals in order to qualify for the very generous pupil premium and I suspect that an element of that will apply once the criterion for eligibility is published and made available to local authorities. People will want to apply for free school meals because there is an extra benefit beyond just receiving a meal.
Meg Munn: I am sure that the Minister says that in the hope that this is exactly what will happen, but in my constituency, the experience of the free places for three and four-year-olds was that take-up was lower in areas of disadvantage. It comes back to my earlier point that, where children are entitled—particularly where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow says, there is no existing contact between the family and the provision—it is not necessarily the case that a family will make itself
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a very good point, but she is raising the best as the enemy of the good. The extension of free early-years provision to 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds is very welcome. The details of how we define eligibility, of how we encourage the most disadvantaged to take up that provision, are, of course, problems that have faced Administrations over the years and will continue to be the problems that we must address. My hon. Friend the Children’s Minister is determined to address these issues and I have every faith that she will continue to do that, because we all want the most deprived families to have access to this early-years provision. The evidence shows that those who benefit the most from this provision are those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, so we want to ensure that we deliver that.
I turn to amendment 7, which would remove what we believe is a helpful clarification of the law. As hon. Members know, clause 1 would replace section 7 of the Childcare Act 2006 with a new section 7 that includes the proposed new subsection dealing with what may be prescribed in regulations. The approach taken in proposed new section 7(2) to what is in the Bill and what will be set out in regulations is consistent with that of the previous Administration. The subsection sets out the number of hours the entitlement is for and the period of time over the year that the entitlement must be available. These details are included in the current regulations introduced by the previous Administration. Proposed new section 7(2) makes explicit that regulations may set out how much free provision will be made available and when. Such clarification will make easier to understand what can be prescribed under the law. The measure will not undermine the Government’s commitment to retaining the universal free offer for three and four-year-olds.
Removing new subsection (2) would not prevent a Government from making the regulations or prescribing the details in them under subsection (1). The Government have power to introduce regulations on how local authorities must make free early-years provision available. The previous Administration, of which Labour Members were part, used the regulation-making power to prescribe the current number of hours and weeks that such entitlement is for. The same power has been used to increase the entitlement from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week. I understand that people are concerned that the Government might seek to reduce the number of free hours, but we have expressly decided to retain that extension to 15 hours.
By tabling amendment 8, the hon. Member for Cardiff West has raised the important, broader point that the quality of provision offered to disadvantaged two-year-olds is crucial. We agree that high-quality provision makes the biggest positive impact on children’s outcomes and that it can give disadvantaged children the head start they need to ensure that they succeed. We all want such children to have high-quality provision.
We recognise the importance of using high-quality settings for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We will provide funding in 2011-12 of £64 million, as I have said, which rises in 2012-13 to £223 million—that is before the statutory duty comes into force. That will help local authorities to build capacity and improve the quality of settings. When we consult on the regulations, we will consider the quality of settings that local authorities should use. We will provide £4 million in 2011-12 for local authorities to trial approaches to expansion that will include methods to raise quality.
Meg Munn: I know it is rather early in terms of the budgets being set in local authorities, but has the Minister made any assessment of the number of local authorities that will be cutting down on the support that is currently available to early-years child care settings precisely to drive up quality? Any additional money is welcome, of course. However, a number of local authorities will be looking to make savings in this area because, I believe, it is not statutorily set out. In such circumstances, will the money that the Minister has described substitute, in any way, for the massive cuts that I know some local authorities face?
Mr Gibb: These are matters for local authorities. The funding is available to them, and we are providing an extra £64 million in 2011-12 for this provision. My own view is that making savings in this area is a short-term approach, because of the long term effects and benefits of free provision for two-year-olds in addressing attainment and social problems.
Meg Munn: It may well be short term, but does the Minister not realise that many local authorities, because of the frontloading of cuts, are faced with having to look at these cuts in a way that, had the Government chosen to make cuts more slowly—even to allow them to happen a year later—might have allowed local authorities to look at providing for these services in different ways, rather than having to cut things that they do not statutorily have to provide.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady raises an issue, but I am not aware that that is what is happening in local authorities around the country, although they are still setting their budgets and making decisions. The evidence and information that I have is that this is not becoming an issue.
Stephen McPartland: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is progressive, because it expands education for early years, which is a good first step? We will replicate the current provision for three and four-year-olds and take it a step further by giving two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance in life.
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point, better than I managed to; I am grateful to him. It is odd to have this debate about closing provision for two-year-olds when we are debating a clause that extends early-years provision for two-year-olds and provides £64 million extra in the coming financial year. The hon. Lady raises a point about the wider economy—I will not be tempted to stray down that route—but difficult decisions had to be taken to avoid this country having a huge fiscal and financial crisis, as we have seen in Ireland and Greece. If we had gone down that route, we would now be discussing the very issues that the hon. Lady is seeking to scare the Committee with.
Meg Munn: The Minister clearly misunderstands what I said. Many local authorities went down the route of employing advisers and support staff who worked outside of the authority provision and who were experienced in working in early years, to check on quality and provide advice and support to members of staff in nursery and child care settings who, because of the expansion, were less experienced. Local authorities are looking at cutting those posts, because of the cuts. The Minister says that they will provide extra funding to support the quality of child care and early-years education to two-year-olds, but I am saying that the Minister is taking away a massive amount with one hand, while giving a small amount back with the other.
Mr Gibb: The Government are giving advice to local authorities on how they can make savings, but often it is up to local authorities. They are sovereign bodies in their own right, and they have to make decisions about the use of public money in these difficult, constrained times. My judgment is that it is better not to make those savings on the delivery of front-line services. These savings should be made in more efficient procurement and a more efficient delivery of services at local authority level, without cutting front-line services.
I will return to amendment 8, because requiring Ofsted to make a one-off report to Parliament is not the best way of achieving the goal of higher quality. As I made clear in the policy statement that I shared with the Committee yesterday, we will consult on the eligibility criteria and the quality of provision to be offered to children. We will work with local authorities in forthcoming
Kevin Brennan: I think that the Minister understands the importance of this provision being high quality and the point made by the Chair of the Education Committee that poor provision can be damaging, rather than just being no help at all. Why would it not be a good idea to get the inspectorate at least to take one look at this without putting excessive bureaucratic burden upon it, to ensure that the outcome of the Government’s policy is high-quality provision? How can he ensure that that will be the case if he does not involve the inspectorate?
Mr Gibb: The inspectorate is involved. The hon. Gentleman will know that Ofsted regularly inspects all early years providers, and at least every three or four years, so free provision for two-year-olds will be inspected as part of that. It is unclear whether he and other hon. Members intend that Ofsted should undertake a specific inspection of just those settings offering free provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds. If so, that would be burdensome and bureaucratic to implement, as well as unnecessary. I do not believe that a report to Parliament such as that described in the amendment is needed.
That is not to say that the chief inspector of Ofsted has no role in reporting in her traditional way—speaking without fear or favour—on the broader picture of early years provision. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the chief inspector already makes an annual report to Parliament that contains a detailed commentary on the early years sector, including the quality of early years provision, and it is much read and much valued.
Kevin Brennan: On that point, is the Minister able to assure the Committee that Ofsted’s annual report to Parliament for the first year of the working of the new system will contain reference to the free early years provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds? We would like an assurance that we will get early feedback on whether the kind of quality that all of us on the Committee want is being achieved.
Mr Gibb: I can put the hon. Gentleman’s view to the chief inspector. She is, of course, independent, and her report must be independent of Ministers—she will be guided by statute. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I will ask her whether she would be able to do that.
Pat Glass: On that point, taking into consideration what the Chair of the Education Committee said, and what I said earlier about the balance of education and care, we will need to know that this great deal of money is bringing about the intended outcomes. When the Minister speaks to the chief inspector, will he be looking at specific outcomes? The clause is about ensuring that disadvantaged children are no longer disadvantaged. I am not an early years expert, but there are lists of measurements such as whether children know their own name and know whether they are a boy or a girl. We can look at such hard statistics to tell us whether the provision is making an impact on education.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady touches on issues that will be considered by the Tickell review of the early years foundation stage. That report, which is eagerly awaited, will address precisely what we want to be delivered in the early years stage of a child’s education. The hon. Lady makes a good point, but I think that will be covered by the review, which I do not want to pre-empt.
Stella Creasy: I wonder whether the Minister understands the concern of Labour Members that the Government are waiting for a number of reports and reviews so that they can untangle how they might address services for children with special educational needs and rearrange early years provision. Some of our amendments reflect those uncertainties. We are worried that the Government are introducing legislation that might affect those services without understanding how that might fit with the broader policy areas of concern. Perhaps the Minister will say a little about what evaluation process he has put in train. We see from the fabled 4.34 note limited evidence about the initial eligibility criteria, but perhaps he will say something about the evaluation process to which he has committed so that we understand whether the Government are meeting the needs of disadvantaged children as they want to, and are identifying them in the right way in the year after the policy is brought in.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady also touches on issues that are being considered by Clare Tickell—we will wait for her report. Of course, all Governments want to ensure that provision is of high quality across all state-funded educational provision, whether for early years, primary, key stages 1 and 2, secondary or beyond. We will of course address that issue, as any Administration would.
Hon. Members are now—I was going to say “carping” but perhaps that is the wrong word. This provision extends free early years provision to 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds on a statutory basis, with the funding to match, which builds up over the next two years to £380 million when the statutory entitlement comes into effect. I would have thought that I should have had overwhelming support for that and that hon. Members would be eager to get the provision on the statute book.
Mr Wright: Is the available funding set out in the note—£64 million in 2011-12, £223 million in 2012-13 and so on—demand-led? If the eligibility criteria relate to free school meals, and free school meals are expanded massively as a result of the pupil premium, can the Department return to the Treasury to get extra money to ensure that all those who fulfil the criteria will be entitled to the provision?
Mr Gibb: The funds for the years 2011-12 and 2012-13, in which we are providing £64 million and £223 million respectively, are being allocated to local authorities through the early intervention grant to increase the capacity of early years provision as we build up to 2013, when the statutory entitlement comes into effect. We believe that the eligibility criteria on which that we are consulting will match the £380 million of funding that we are providing. Indeed, the impact assessment for the policy suggests that 20% of children attending free early years provision would cost about £347 million. The
Stephen McPartland: Using the measure of free school meals as the basis for trying to identify disadvantage to begin with—from the ages of two to 16—strikes me as quite a good approach, because it standardises what the issue is.
Stella Creasy: We can never hear enough from the Minister, but I think that he is being a little unfair in accusing Opposition Members of carping. The issue about standardisation is the point in hand. That presumes that the numbers of young people in this country who are eligible for free school meals, and therefore the numbers of families who are disadvantaged, will remain constant, but I am sure that that is not the Government’s intention.
I asked a question about evaluation. Amendment 8 offers a clear opportunity for us to evaluate the extension of early years provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds as a new policy. My concern, given what the Minister is saying, is that he seems not to have put in place a process for evaluating the new policy so that his Department can respond to it. Will he clarify this? In the absence of the amendment, what actions will his Department take to ensure that it is getting this right, which is what we all want?
Mr Gibb: Of course, there are post-implementation reviews of all legislation. That will apply to this clause and this Bill, as to any other legislation. However, Ofsted is the key agency that monitors the quality of provision in our education system. It will conduct reviews in the normal way. It can also produce themed reports at the discretion of the chief inspector, but that is a matter for her, not for Ministers. As I promised the hon. Member for Cardiff West, I will raise these issues with the chief inspector so that she might consider whether to include something in her annual report to Parliament.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on this group of amendments. I think that I have, to the best of my ability and with some support from my hon. Friends, addressed all the issues raised by hon. Members during our debate. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Cardiff West to withdraw the amendment.
Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to go through the concerns raised during the debate. On amendments 4 and 5, the question for Opposition Members is whether he has given us the absolute assurance that we need about the Government’s intentions in relation to the universal provision for three
Our second question is key, however, and I might ask the Minister to respond to this point. We got an assurance that the Government will not go back on the guarantee for three and four-year-olds, but can we be assured that the introduction of the clause will not make it easier for a future Minister, who did not share his point of view, to go back on the guarantee of universal entitlement for three and four-year-olds? I am not sure that we got sufficient reassurance on that point. In other words, does the clause make it any easier than at present for a Government to go back on the guarantee? That is the key question, so perhaps the Minister will respond to it when I have finished my remarks and we can then decide whether to press the amendments to a Division.
Amendment 6, which relates to the definition of disadvantage, is a probing one. The Government have indicated in their note the manner in which they are consulting on the matter. It is obviously significant that, as the Minister revealed in his response to me, the current proportion of two-year-olds who would be eligible—and I take his point about “would be eligible”—for free school meals is around or just under 20%. That suggests that the Government are perhaps thinking of coming forward with a proposal that would include all those on free school meals. Perhaps, as signalled in the Minister’s note, there might be some discretion at a local level beyond free school meals. The Minister might care to confirm if that is his thinking.
Pat Glass: I have become concerned that the Government’s thinking is confused. Free school meals are as good as anything as a proxy indicator to drive funding. I have looked in various authorities at the index of multiple deprivation, including IDACI, which is the children’s element, but the measure of free school meals is as good as anything I have looked at. However, it is entirely wrong to use free school meals as an eligibility criterion, so I ask the Government to look much wider, because that measure would exclude children who are significantly disadvantaged but do not fall into relevant category.
Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, because a number of good points have been made. I suggest to the Minister that the clear impression from the debate is that, at least to begin with, the Government intend the building block for eligibility for free entitlement to early years provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds to be based on free school meals, with the idea of allowing some local discretion beyond that. That raises questions as to how appropriate it is to leave this so open, which was is why I asked the Minister whether that was his intention. We obviously need a thorough job to be done and the Minister has committed to consult on that, so I will not press amendment 6 to a Division. However, we look forward to hearing what he has to say about my point on free school meals and local discretion.
Amendment 7 is also a probing amendment, so I shall not ask my hon. Friends to support it in a Division. However, the Minister should take note of the concern about the powers that the Secretary of State is taking to himself. We look forward to seeing the draft regulations, and I hope that the Minister will be able to produce draft regulations in a much more timely fashion throughout the passage of the Bill.
Amendment 8 is about quality of provision, and the Minister agreed to ask Her Majesty’s chief inspector, at the first available opportunity, to take into account the possibility of reporting on quality in its annual report to Parliament. Will he confirm that he will do that in writing, and will there be a recommendation that that would be a good thing for the inspector to do—I respect the independence of the inspector—in the light of remarks that have been made on the clause? If he has the opportunity, will he report the inspector’s response to the Committee, or at the earliest possible opportunity in the Bill’s passage? If the Minister can give me those assurances, I will not press the amendment to a Division. As I said at the outset, however, I shall reserve our position on amendments 4 and 5 until I have heard the Minister’s response to my question.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reply to my response to the debate. On his first point, about whether the legislation makes it easier for Ministers to remove three and four-year-olds’ entitlement, section 7 of the Childcare Act 2006 already allows Ministers to reduce the number of hours to 10, for example, or to remove the entitlement altogether. The clause will not, therefore, change Ministers’ powers on that, and the hon. Gentleman has heard from me—on the record—a firm commitment, which will not change, to free provision for all three and four-year-olds. I hope that that is enough to reassure him of the Government’s intentions, and to persuade him not to press the amendment.
I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for North West Durham about discretion at local level beyond entitlement to free school meals. At the moment, local authorities have discretion in deciding who will get the pilot entitlement to free early provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds. There are 20,000 children entitled to that. As part of the consultation process, which is set out in the 4.34 document, we will also consider whether and how local authorities could be provided with the discretion to fund places beyond entitlement to free school meals.
Another important point the hon. Lady made was about special needs. One could argue that children with particularly severe special needs are well provided for in a way—and not in a complacent way. The research shows that the system is good at identifying children with complex needs early on in their life, and that they are likely to be receiving support. That is not a complacent statement—it is what the research shows—but I take on board the hon. Lady’s point about disadvantage and how we define it, and we would like to discuss that further before officially launching the consultation process.
Mr Stuart: In his letter, the Minister might want to touch on the preparedness of children for school and the specific quality of this provision in that context because we must stay focused on the outcomes we are after, which is about not just high-quality two-year-old provision, but making a difference to the readiness of children when they arrive at school.
Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is certainly a priority of mine, as Schools Minister, that children start school ready. The better prepared they are for school, the more they will achieve at school, so that is an important point to include in the letter. I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Member for Cardiff West and my hon. Friends, and that the hon. Gentleman will feel able now to withdraw his amendments.
Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurances on amendment 8. We look forward to reading the exchange of correspondence between him and the chief inspector. I just wanted to emphasise the importance that all Members of the House have placed on quality in relation to early years provision. I do not, therefore, intend to press amendment 8 to a vote. I do not intend to press amendment 7 to a vote either.
Amendment 6 was a probing amendment and the Government are consulting around the definition of disadvantage. Perhaps the Minister can answer my point about local discretion in relation to the definition of disadvantage. While he is shuffling his papers, perhaps he can say whether that is part of the Government’s thinking in relation to the consultation.
“Alongside seeking views on the nationally defined eligibility criteria we will use to define disadvantage, the consultation will also consider whether and how local authorities could be provided discretion to fund places beyond this.”
In relation to amendments 4 and 5—I hope that I have this technically right—we want to be absolutely clear about the universal provision for three and four-year-olds. I have said on record that I accept the Government’s commitment, and it is absolutely clear, that they wish to keep that provision for three and four-year-olds. I welcome the Minister’s strong words on that, but we want it clearly on the record that we do not want any potential weakening of that for future Governments. On that basis, I will ask my hon. Friends
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