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Many concerns lie in deep-seated societal problems which no plan for children can solve, although it may contribute to solutions. But some issues really should be able to be addressed instantly. I have mentioned children in care and young offenders. Let me now look at leisure facilities. Yes, let us build more, but let us engage with young people in what we have—for example, local sports clubs. This happens, of course, but local clubs could tell many a story of planning problems. My noble friend Lady Billingham, who cannot be here today—she may be on the same Euro boat as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth—would say that the issue of recreational facilities is bedevilled by atrophy in planning systems for clubs. Why should it take years to get floodlighting permission or permission to set up a club or build changing facilities or have nets for cricket? This is not my noble friend the Minister’s area of responsibility but can he speak to Ministers who have this brief and try to inject a sense of urgency? Young

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people need recreational facilities in every community and communities are sometimes denied quick and easy access to setting them up. We are all concerned about youth crime. Why do we not try to engage young people at a local level in something different?

Let me finally make a few comments on the primary curriculum. This is covered in chapter 3 of the Children’s Plan. A review is announced to support seamless experience of education between phases. It will begin this year and report back by March 2009 so that changes may be implemented by 2011. Again I would ask: why so long? The review will better personalise learning and teaching while ensuring grounding in the basics. It will seek to raise standards in all pupils through a number of measures, including a strong focus on learning and numeracy, on scientific understanding, on the effective use of ICT, on reducing prescription to allow for building on previous learning, on the availability of the creative arts, sport, humanities, science and technology, personal, social and moral education, and on more learning outside the classroom.

This is all well and good—in fact it is excellent—but will the issue of testing in primary schools be addressed? I have long thought from my experience as a former teacher, parent and school governor that testing too often and too early can be counterproductive. It can distract children, teachers and parents from what education is really about, which is stimulating curiosity and love of learning.

I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing for the House Magazine that wonderful children’s author Michael Morpurgo. He was emphatic that children should enjoy literature, with an encouragement to explore books and be entertained by them; a sure way to encourage reading. He thought that there should be an academy for literature. Perhaps my noble friend will take that on board. The joy of learning is the best way that we can encourage young people to maintain a lifelong interest in learning. I certainly do not want to create a generation of stressed children who regard learning as a means to passing tests.

I have expressed concern about the implementation of the Children’s Plan and the setting of objectives. I suggested that it is possible to do some things more quickly. I have touched on play, recreational facilities and primary school testing. We need to be clear about what is important, what is already half-there and quickly achievable and what is really long term. Some things are urgent, such as youth justice and children in care.

I anticipate with great pleasure the words of others who will expand on my brief statement. One of the reasons for such debates is to keep children and young people on the political agenda. Not that I think that the Government will let this slip; but let us encourage them during and following this debate to bring together all their excellent initiatives and prioritise, plan and have a strategy that is timed. Let us press for a clearer timetable and a tighter implementation strategy. Can the Minister, if he agrees, try to work on that and report back to us? I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s response. I beg to move for Papers.

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11.52 am

Lord Dearing: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, whose speech showed such knowledge and such caring, while focusing on the practical issue of implementation, which is the most difficult and important issue. I will concentrate on one aspect of the Children’s Plan; those children who fare and have fared least well in education for the whole time that I have been in this House and, I suspect, for a generation before that. It is a matter of shame that we have continued to fail so many of our children and condemn them to inferior lives for so long.

I acknowledge without reservation what this Government have done to improve their lot. What is said in this plan gives one great encouragement. I would like to give it three cheers—subject to the implementation issue—but I have one or two reservations. I have no doubt about the commitment of the Secretary of State to disadvantaged children, because in six short paragraphs of his introduction there are six references to meeting the needs of every child and saying that no child should fall behind. That shows great intention, which I greatly welcome. However, unless we can achieve what he clearly wants to, we are condemning these children to impaired lives. Even if they want to go off the academic route into an apprenticeship, so much of an apprenticeship nowadays depends on them spending time in college, which depends on their ability to read, write and engage in high-level apprenticeships.

In another context, apart from careers, I was speaking in a debate 10 days ago led by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which I referred to the need for reading and writing skills to deal with the forms that we all have to live with from the Government and local authorities. I referred to the child tax credit application form. Imagine that you are a jobbing bricklayer with irregular income trying to answer a 12-page form. If you have a big family, there are another four pages. How many explanatory notes do you have to read? There are 59 foolscap pages of explanatory notes to complete the blessed form. One must be able to read and write to cope effectively in every aspect of life nowadays.

So many proposals help us in this area, but I want to talk about the specific goals set in paragraph 35 of the White Paper’s executive summary. I welcome the Government’s intention to consult over them. If we are talking about objectives for 2020, we need a commitment not only from this Government but from all parties, because the worst thing for schools is to have to say, “They are changing it again”. They need continuity so that they can address their energies to implementation rather than to the readjustment of starting on a new track. We need this period of consultation and to coalesce on an agreed series of objectives. I have one major reservation about them: they all refer to 2020. The issues of reading, writing and arithmetic, about which I have so much concern, cannot wait for 2020. It is urgent now for those kids’ lives.

I recognise that the PSA target for 2012 is not in the White Paper, but I suggest that the target set in the Children’s Plan for achievement at the end of key stage

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2 should be brought forward from 2020 to 2015 because it matters so much to the lives of these people. I did not see in the White Paper—I may have missed it—that there is not a target at 16 specifically for English and maths as opposed to all subjects where there is a target for five GCSEs at a decent level. I would like there to be one so that there is some explicit commitment to lifting what is achieved at the end of key stage 2 to 16 year-olds.

I stick to 16 year-olds because that is long enough to wait for another target to be set. Those are my two main qualifications, although I would add that one or two targets are so unspecific that it would be difficult to judge whether they are being met. Perhaps that issue can be addressed during the consultation and more specific targets put in.

I turn to specifics—one inevitably tends to ride one’s own aged hobby-horses—and, first, to the extended school day. For children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds that is a key element in any commitment to rescuing kids from disadvantage. Middle-class parents can afford any extra coaching that their children need and have the money in their wallets to take them to enriching activities. The child from a disorganised, disadvantaged poor home cannot be offered those extras, but they can through the extended school day, especially in areas of social disadvantage. That needs to be a continuing high priority with the teaching resource allocated to obtain the best from it.

The Nuffield Foundation has raised the importance of break time. It can be used creatively and I was glad to see in the plan the commitment to 3,500 refurbished playgrounds and to obtaining several thousand qualified playworkers. I regard that as part of the kind of service that schools can offer to children from disadvantaged homes in particular.

I again touch on my hobby-horse of summer-born children. I am glad that that has been picked up in the White Paper. While I accept the comment in it that, if it were offered, parents would hesitate to take the advantage of starting a year later because the pupil would lose a year’s schooling, by the time that took effect, schooling would be compulsory until 18 years of age, not 16; it would not be such an issue. We could offer the child and the parents an entitlement to have the extra year. I would not see that as a disadvantage and, in the light of experience, it deserves to be on the agenda.

I would like to say a word about the tutors proposed for every child throughout his or her school years. That is excellent. They need someone who knows them and to whom they can go. But at a couple of schools that I recently visited I picked up the idea of a tutor group of children of different ages, whereby the youngsters have a buddy whom they can turn to in the playground or wherever, if they are in trouble. It is a useful concept. I have seen how the little group comes together, say, once a week; they get to know each other and help each other. The tutor group is a useful extension of the tutor idea.

I have spoken previously about the important issue of managing well the transition from primary to secondary school. At a point when so many children move from a small school, where they are personally known and

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have a “good shepherd” teacher who looks after them, into a school that is two, three or four times as big, with no good shepherd, and when they are already behind, they have had it. I fear that that happens all too often. Therefore, the issue of transition for those who are behind is crucial. The White Paper speaks of a curriculum with continuity. That is excellent and is essential for languages, for example. But we have to address this issue beyond that. It is a question of melding the two teaching styles of primary and secondary, whereby, in their last year at primary, pupils begin to have experience of moving to another teacher in another classroom. Reciprocally, at the secondary school, they spend perhaps a third to a half of their time with one teacher who becomes the good shepherd in the first year, when the level of learning is not all that elevated. The issue of transition is important to meet the needs of, and show a good pathway to, those who are disadvantaged.

What is said about excluded children, who are among the most disadvantaged, especially if they have problems of attitude and the way that their minds are made? These people really need money spent on them.

I say in conclusion that it is important, when you are investing all of this money on particular things, to make sure that the schools spend it in the way that you want them to spend it, and it does not go to other objectives driven by the performance tables—which is all too likely to happen. I do not know how to work that trick, but we must tackle that. This is a great White Paper. If we can work on it together, it will be greater yet.

12.03 pm

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for calling this debate and for focusing upon equality of opportunity for children. This means not simply equality of opportunity to succeed in later life but opportunity for children now to enjoy their childhood and to play, for those from secure homes with anxious parents, to take risks and, for those whose homes are already risky, to experience some security.

I am never quite sure in a debate like this whether I should declare interests, but we all have them. I am a parent in a diocese with more than 100 church schools, a co-sponsor of an academy, and I have associations with many children’s charities. I suppose that the most dangerous of those interests is being a parent, and I am glad that my children are not here to listen to me pontificate about children.

One refreshing feature of the Children’s Plan is that it says clearly that parents and families—not Governments—bring up children. That this might need to be said at all would have seemed ludicrous once, but at least we can be grateful for it now. It puts the rest of the plan, which I welcome—as did the noble Lord, Lord Dearing—in perspective. We know that what happens at home has a massive impact on children’s education. We all know of some children who overcome a dysfunctional or inadequate upbringing remarkably—but many do not. The focus on parents is welcome, and to do so in the context of extended school provision seems right. I agree entirely with all that the noble

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Lord, Lord Dearing, has just said—especially since surveys of parents consistently show that they desire the co-locating of services, especially when these are available on a drop-in basis.

I shall confine my remarks to the value of the extended schools programme, but I will refer also to the children’s trust model, whereby the local authority commissions services for families and children from a diversity of providers. It is a very good model, but it involves a change in the local authority mindset that is not yet evident everywhere. I want to talk also about the social contract between parents and schools envisaged in the Children’s Plan, which must be easily the most interventionist proposal that it contains.

One key theme that has emerged from evidence submitted to the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood inquiry has been the need to develop personal and social skills—one of the main aims of the Children’s Plan itself. I hope that this will be recognised in the review of the primary curriculum, since those early years in school are crucial for later achievement and confidence. The development of good communication skills is fundamental and the poverty deficit is not always one of parental income—it can be of parental engagement. Put simply, children whose parents do not converse with them, or children who are shouted at or are limited to passive receiving in front of a television or computer screen, are not well placed in our educational system. That is why the extended schools agenda is so valuable.

I take two examples from church schools in radically different settings—one a rural primary in my diocese, the other a Church of England secondary school in Wigan, featured in an article in the Guardian this week. The Hesketh Fletcher high school has around 800 pupils. Nearly half of them come from the Hag Fold estate and many have serious problems coping with school life. At least 50 of them were in danger of permanent exclusion. Last November, Phase 1 Base was created—a flat on the estate, away from the school, that is well equipped and well furnished, with a living area, computer rooms, places for quiet learning and places for eating: a home, really. Here, children who are among the most alienated from education learn with a high teacher/pupil ratio—about one to six. House parents take over from teachers at the end of the school day and a meal is provided, with everyone gathered around one table, before homework is done. There is a chance to develop a different rhythm in life. This sort of home from home may be new, but it is not designed for the cotton-wool kids from risk-averse homes—it is for children from risky homes, where drug addiction, unemployment, casual violence, mental illness and parental imprisonment are common.

One striking thing about the Good Childhood inquiry is that when children themselves are consulted, many who have not experienced a good home have more than an inkling of what it is—70 per cent say that loving parents in a good home is what makes childhood happy. I suppose that one thing that we have to do in relation to our extended schools programme is to introduce more children to the idea of what a good home is like.

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However, there is another side to all this, as the Good Childhood inquiry has revealed. While one group of children needs security, others are overprotected. A quarter of all children aged between 11 and 15 have never been to the park or the shops on their own. That is where I think a constructive strategy on the value of play—especially outdoor play, which enables children to achieve independence in life—is good, and the Children’s Plan recognises that.

The other school that I want to mention is in my own diocese. It is in Stibbard outside Fakenham—a village of just a few hundred people. It is a completely new church primary school, opened a couple of years ago, and has been deliberately sited in its rural location to ensure continuing vibrancy of life in a rural community. Attached to the school is a well equipped children’s centre, which provides childcare and is also the base for a host of extended school activities. One big success story has been the African Drumming Club—just what you would expect in the Norfolk countryside. It has a set of 30 drums and parents and children are actively involved. One crucial thing in the extended schools programme is that it is a question not just of occupying children outside the normal school day but of engaging parents and children together in constructive activities—something that does not take place in the way that it should even in some of our more secure homes. The parents at the Stibbard school were consulted recently and they said that they wanted more sports-based and arts-based extended activities. If there is an issue, it is that the care provided through the children’s centre has to be paid for, whereas much of the extended schools programme is free or at nominal cost, and that creates a tension between the children’s centre and the school. In addition, some of the families which most need the provision—for which grants may need to be gained—may be the most reluctant to seek it.

That raises a wider problem, which I ask the Minister to address. My question is: what happens with parents who themselves had problems at school? Many parents were alienated from education in their youth and see school, at best, as irrelevant or, at worst, as a threatening environment. When all this support is associated with the school, will those parents access it so readily when it is focused on what they consider to be a threatening environment? I should be interested to know whether research is being done into whether the extended schools programme is successful in drawing hard-to-reach families into its ambit or whether, as I suspect, it exacerbates social exclusion. I applaud the intention but recognise that there are real difficulties here as well.

There is certainly a welcome from these Benches for the children’s trust model, but local authorities need to manage the balance between their role as a commissioner of services and their role as a provider among other providers. The diversity of provision, which I see as being behind this model, is significant, yet it is very tempting for local authorities, which themselves may be funding small projects run by charities or churches within children’s centres, to incorporate that fully into their own provision by taking on the workers as local authority employees. That may seem administratively efficient but it means that there is much less diversity

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of ethos and provision. That is not the way to foster creative partnerships and it seems rather statist in character. There are a few stray signs of this around and they could become a worrying trend.

Finally, the social contract between parents and schools is a prescriptive intervention in a plan that focuses on supporting parents and families and could be a rather significant imposition on the day-to-day running of schools. I realise that the Government intend to consult on this but there is a lack of reference here and elsewhere in the Children’s Plan to consultation with children and young people. That has been one of the real strengths of the Good Childhood inquiry because what worries children may not be self-evident to parents and teachers. For example, in that inquiry, a third of 2,500 children said that their biggest worry about school was bullying. That seems a very significant statistic for us to consider—that a third of our children are scared of being bullied in school. So any consultation on the new relationship between parents and schools must include children and young people themselves.

I welcome the talk in the Children’s Plan of developing a family policy for the 21st century—the introduction of a personal parent-held record from birth to age 11 seems emphatic in its symbolism of the emphasis on parents raising children, but there are still a few statist tendencies around, which I hope the Minister will endeavour to limit.

12.15 pm

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for bringing this debate on the Children’s Plan to the Floor of the House. I welcome the opportunity to comment on some of its details, with particular reference to equality of opportunity. Like the noble Baroness, I looked forward to reading the report and from an initial reading of its chapter headings, I hoped for new and innovative ways of keeping children and young people on the path to success. However, certain parts of the report impel me to ask some questions of the Minister.

The report tells us that experts have highlighted that the curriculum should help children move seamlessly from nurseries to schools. However, at no time did it show how the four points highlighted by Sir Jim Roper will impact on what has already been done in schools.

The report also refers to personalised learning that will put children and their needs first and suggests moving to a more sophisticated approach to be made standard practice across the system. However, in multicultural Britain, will the resources be available to meet the needs of each child or will we, yet again, have to change course? The aims described within the report are noble and worthy. We know there has been some progress but will it be sustained, and, if so, assessed in all schools?

The report refers to parents as partners in learning—again, a noble aim—but says nothing of how parents will be supported in this type of involvement. There have been previous such initiatives but a high percentage still remain outside the loop. Will the Minister say how this will be managed in any future plan?

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