HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc499-507WH 3.28 pm
Chris Ruane (Vale of Chwyd) (Lab)

Thank you for your kind introduction, Mr. Cook. The issue is indeed intriguing. I should like to bring to the Chamber's attention what I believe is the key issue facing the country today. At first glance, one might not think that it could possibly be this, but the development of language governs not only an individual's ability to talk, but the ability to think, reason, argue, discuss, debate and use a range of higher-order skills that are necessary for an individual and a national economy to function properly in the 21st century.

I draw hon. Members' attention to this book "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children", by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who are professors of human development and psychology. They have produced what is widely recognised as the most comprehensive study of early language development ever conducted. I should like to give a brief summary of that research, which was first brought to my attention by the journalist Polly Toynbee, in a recent article in The Guardian. I am indebted to Polly: the House could not get a copy of the book for me in time, but she sent one last Friday. I read it over the weekend and was very impressed. The authors originally took part in intervention programmes with four-year-olds. They tried, with extra funding and resources, to raise the children's educational attainment. They could not achieve this, and wondered why that might be, so they examined development from nought to three and found it to be the key.

Hart and Risley studied 42 families: professional and working-class families and those on welfare. Once a month they went into the family home and recorded every single word that was uttered to the child concerned. They did this for two and a half years. They spent six years categorizing, coding and analysing this information. They found that, over the two and a half year period, there were widening gaps between the vocabulary growth of the child from a professional family, the child from a working-class family and the child from a family receiving welfare. By the age of four, the child from a professional family had had 50 million words spoken to him, the child from a working-class family 30 million, and the one from the family on benefits just 12 million.

The researchers also examined the types of words that were spoken and the context in which they were used. They looked at positive reinforcement and negative discouragement, and what they found in this regard was equally shattering. The child from the professional family had had 700,000 words of encouragement, with just 80,000 negatives. However, the child from the family receiving benefits had 60,000 words of encouragement and twice as many words of discouragement. One can imagine the effect of this, day in, day out, on a child's motivation, confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem and aspiration—it cannot be exaggerated.

Hart and Risley also found that the vocabulary of a child of three from the professional class was greater than that of the adult from the family receiving benefits. That is a devastating statistic. I would say it needs further analysis, but if it is true, a great deal of intervention needs to take place. I think this might help us to understand why social class is the most significant defining factor in a child's educational success in Britain. According to the March 2003 Education and Child Poverty report, the gap established was larger than in any other country in the developed world. I know that the Pre-School Learning Alliance, a national educational charity that has campaigned on this matter, is also concerned. Recent research by the Government's Basic Skills Agency has also found a notable decrease in language skills in all primary school children, regardless of family demographics, within the last five years. A clear initiative to foster early language development among disadvantaged British children is essential.

I want to turn my focus to what can be done in the UK to give children from working-class families and those on welfare equality of opportunity from the day they are born. Before I do this, I would like to give credit for what the Government have done for families in deprived neighbourhoods—the list is impressive. We have increased child benefit to more than £16 a week for the first child, and continue to uprate it each year. We have introduced a range of early-years programmes, including Sure Start, which now attracts £500 million in funding. We have reduced class sizes in infant schools to below 30. We have introduced literacy and numeracy hours and have dramatically improved the results obtained in standard assessment tests. We have introduced flexible working hours and paternity leave, extended maternity leave and pay, and introduced the working time directive to enable families to spend more time together. We have introduced the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, which specifically target women and poorer communities. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced new tax and national insurance breaks for employers who supported child care. We have helped to set up workplace nurseries, after-school clubs, pre-school clubs, breakfast clubs, and family and neighbourhood learning centres in deprived communities. Indeed, I have a dedicated family learning centre opening in my constituency in March, in the West ward of Rhyl, the poorest ward of the 865 in Wales. This Friday I will be opening an out-of-school club at Ysgol Brynhedydd in my constituency. The parents are over the moon at these developments.

I am sure the Minister will add to this impressive list when she sums up at the end. In the Green Paper for children published last September, proposals were put forward to offer a comprehensive approach to the improvement of the lives of British children and youths. I look forward to further development of the initiatives in the coming months, in particular the thorough assessment of how language development can help achieve the goal of lifting children out of poverty. That is a noble goal, set by the Prime Minister—sorry, that was a Freudian slip; the Chancellor has set the goal of lifting all children out of poverty by 2020. However, is bringing them out of poverty so that they are hovering just above the poverty level enough? I do not believe so. We should give such children material support, but our true goal should be to let each and every one of them flourish, and that is contingent on—I refer the Chamber back to the title of the debate—improving children's language development between the ages of nought and three.

The importance of language education for children between nought and three should be recognised in our financing and budgeting. That would show our priorities. Putting the finance in place would show that we are serious about tackling the issue. UK education funding between the ages of nought and 21 is biased towards the secondary and tertiary sectors. In 2001—02, net expenditure in England per pupil was £5,170 for higher education, £3,790 for further education, £3,500 for secondary education and £2,940 for pre-school and primary education, which are now lumped together. I have not been able to obtain the figure for the nought to three-year-olds, but I imagine that funding for them would be dramatically lower. That bias is maintained, despite the fact that for at least 50 years we have known that 50 per cent. of learning is done before the age of five. Ignatius Loyola said 400 years ago, "Give me the child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man." Yet our funding priorities are the inverse of that.

I have concentrated on an overview of our achievements to date and on the importance of the early years, but I wish to return to the specific point of language development, and to what measures the Government could take to narrow the gap among nought to three-year-olds of different social classes. I urge the Minister to conduct a comprehensive assessment of previous research on that issue, of which there are numerous examples from around the world. We need to reassess the excellent work done in America, of which I am sure civil servants are aware. We should consider the High Scope Perry pre-school project, which focused on the early education of disadvantaged children in the Michigan community. Those children learned language through activities that they created and implemented themselves, with the guidance of adult educators. For every $1 invested in that programme—and we have a canny Chancellor interested in savings—$7 was saved during the next 20 years, because less money was subsequently spent on special educational needs, welfare benefits and juvenile crime. The university of North Carolina set up the Abecedarian project, in which infants from low-income homes were put in an intensive child care setting, which resulted in a return of $4 for every $1 spent.

I ask the Minister to look not only to the US but to areas of the UK. In Wales, we are surging ahead with breakfast clubs—putting the nutrients into children from the poorest communities so that they can function and learn properly at school. The parents-as-teachers partnership involves a different approach: it is based on the philosophy, which I share, that parents are the first and most influential teachers. Involving parents in the learning process has the added benefit of improving language skills throughout the family. All those approaches share the goal of establishing strong language skills in each child well before he or she is ready to begin primary school, thus preparing the child for success throughout his or her education and continuing into adulthood. I urge that there be a thorough review to see how these kinds of successful early childhood education programmes may be implemented, developed and expanded in the UK.

Some of the strategies outlined by Risley and Hart seem eminently sensible to me. They have worked in communities in America. Can they work in ours? They recommend quality, income-graded child care that is affordable for all parents. I have already mentioned that the Chancellor has proposals on that.

Last week I was conducting a listening exercise at a local factory in my constituency. There were 10 people around the table, eight of whom were women. One woman calculated that she had spent £36,000 on child care on her child from nought to six. I do not want to diminish the argument for higher education, but hon. Members can draw their own conclusions from that example. Another person calculated that after paying child care costs during the school holidays she was working for £2.27 a day. Those people wanted the Government to support workplace child care.

Is there a case for parenting classes for every child of 15 and 16 years old, or even earlier, so that they are aware of language between nought and three? If they then have children—and especially if they have them early—they will be fully aware of the importance of language. Should the families have enhanced benefits for enrolling on parenting courses? That may help to reduce economic inactivity and help parents to help their children. If parents are willing to co-operate, they should be rewarded.

Hart and Risley estimate that it would take 41 hours a week of one-on-one tuition to bring the child from a family on benefits up to the language exposure level of a child from a professional family. We as a state will not be able to afford that. We must bring the parents on board and help them spend 41 hours a week in constructive dialogue with their children. Engaging the parents will be the key to improving linguistic development. We can learn from the parents-as-teachers project in America, as well as the success of projects around the UK.

Although the Pre-School Learning Alliance cites early language development as central to its ongoing project of striving to provide a series of learning opportunities associated with pre-school education that will support more long-term learning, it has lost funding for its central initiatives. That has greatly reduced the access of parents in the country's most deprived wards to these essential programmes for the promotion of early language development. The alliance contacted me about that yesterday.

If we are cutting back on the support and funding for such excellent projects and organisations, we have no chance of releasing and unlocking the potential of children in deprived neighbourhoods. I have seen the expenditure plans for the Minister's Department and I welcome the rapid expansion of the Sure Start programme from £179 million in 1998 to £531 million now, increasing to £1,506 million by 2006. That is truly rapid progress, and I am pleased about it, but higher education expenditure is currently £7.7 billion and there is a proposed budget of £8.3 billion by 2006.

Last week I was also listening to the views of some families on a local council estate in an area of deprivation. It was mainly mothers who turned up. In fact, it was the council estate that I grew up on. The parents commented on the recent wall-to-wall publicity for top-up fees on the TV and in the other media. They said, "That's an upper-class thing. The rich mummies and daddies are worried. How much will you be spending on the 50 per cent. who will never have the chance to go to college? How much will you be spending on our children? You'll just let them fester and get into crime, drugs and failure." That is a valid point. I do not want to rubbish the higher education argument. However, although we need that investment, which I welcome, we must question where we get it from. This is an issue of social justice: putting the resources where they are most needed and where we will get the most feedback.

Is it right that there is a disparity in the funding of programmes like Sure Start? We are spending 14 times as much on higher education as we are on that dedicated Sure Start programme for children of nought to three years. Is it right for us to spend that much? There needs to be a seismic shift in funding for pre-school education to at least equal, if not overtake, the funding going into higher education. Perhaps I need the Chancellor to be present, because I am sure that the Minister would welcome a fourteenfold increase in her budget to help her achieve her Department's aims. With due respect to the Chancellor, I must say that he has already done more than any other Chancellor in British history to improve the lot of working-class families, and I have given a comprehensive list of his achievements.

There must be a massive expansion of ring-fenced funding targeted at the specific aim of language development in nought to three-year-olds. The Chancellor is a canny Scot who knows where he can get value for money. The earlier we intervene, the greater the savings we will make. The price of failure—the alternative—is juvenile crime, welfare payments and crippled communities. The costs to the individuals are lost opportunities, unfulfilled lives and untapped potential.

Funding is a key issue, but it is not the only one. Another key issue is how we engage the nation with the issue of language development, and, more important, how we engage families who would most benefit from it. Again, I draw comparisons with the debate on higher education funding: nought to three-year-olds in working-class communities do not have a National Union of Students to stick up for them and say, "These are our priorities; we believe in our priorities above everybody else's in the whole of the UK." They have no such lobby. They do not have the equivalent of university vice-chancellors, who can pop in for a cup of tea and a chat with a Cabinet Minister or the Leader of the Opposition and set out their stall. They do not have a powerful parliamentary lobby of MPs who will get to grips with the facts and figures and rebel against the Government if they feel it necessary because they are passionate about the issue. There is very little passion on the issue in the House of Commons.

There are many organisations and individuals that do a sterling job in this country in highlighting the issue of language development in young children. The Pre-School Learning Alliance has helped to co-ordinate much of that activity, but in the busy world of the lobbying of Government it does not have funding, the resources or the contacts of the multinationals—or even of the major national charities and voluntary groups.

In the light of that, I ask the Minister to do all that she can to unite and co-ordinate the voice for the pre-school child. I specifically ask her to establish some high-profile British longitudinal research on the influence of enhanced language development on the educational attainment of children in deprived areas. I also urge her to engage the media and the public in that project. She will probably recall the "7 Up" programme, which has now been going on for 40 years and charts the success or the failure of upper-class, middle-class and working-class children every seven years. Whenever that is on TV the whole nation is engaged. We are all aware of reality TV programmes such as "Big Brother"; if we had a TV programme that properly focused on the improvement of the lives of nought to three-year-olds in working-class communities, one can imagine how fascinating, accessible and highly informative it would be. That would help us to get across our key message to the people who would most benefit from it.

To summarise, I welcome the many and varied measures that this Government have taken to help families with young children in deprived areas. I recognise the importance of language development between the ages of nought and three for the individual, for the community and for society. I call upon the Government to continue to expand rapidly the budgets for the education and social care of nought to three-year-olds. I urge them to take particular note of the research of Hart and Risley and focus specifically on increasing the number of words and positive reinforcements spoken to young children in deprived neighbourhoods. I call for the establishment of a longitudinal study on this important issue, and for the relevant media outlets to be used to popularise that research. I would also like the Minister to do all she can to work with the early-years development lobby to ensure that this key issue remains at the top of our political agenda.

3.49 pm
The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate. It is sad that there is not greater interest in it, particularly given that the ambition on the Government side of the House is to secure much better equality of outcome for every child. My hon. Friend has identified a critical matter and there was nothing in his contribution with which I disagreed.

I have not read the book that was referred to—I would be delighted to have a copy—but I did read Polly Toynbee's article. She always writes incredibly powerfully and her articles make a contribution to social policy. Her articulation on what is a vital piece of our understanding of what makes for equality of opportunity was very important. Many of my colleagues in this sphere were also influenced by it. It was a really good bit of journalism, which I hope will be widely read.

That article highlights two stark facts that I will mention. One is that, by the age of four, a child from a professional background hears 50 million words, whereas a child from a welfare background hears only 12 million. That is a fantastic difference. The other, rather frightening, conclusion drawn from that research was that it would take 41 hours a week of talking at the level offered by the professional parent for the child from the working-class background to experience the same vocabulary. That shows the mountain that we have to climb if we are to achieve genuine equality of opportunity.

I draw your attention, Mr. Cook, and that of my hon. Friend to other bits of research that influenced our thinking. One is some research done by Feinstein, who demonstrates that one can measure children's cognitive development at 20 months and that there is a distribution regardless of social background and class. Some working-class kids have high cognitive skills and some middle-class and upper middle-class kids have low cognitive skills. However, over time, by the age of five or 10, class is really locked in so that the children with low cognitive skills from a high-income background overtake those with higher cognitive skills and a low-income background. That also demonstrates the importance of our intervention.

The other bit of research was given to me in my early days in this job. It was an analysis done by Charles des Forge of all the research literature about the importance of parenting and the influence of it on outcomes for children. He demonstrated what is common sense to us all: good parenting in the home has a greater impact on the educational outcome of children than do socio-economic background and the most excellent teacher in the most wonderful school. That is largely about parents talking to their children. If we can improve that aspect of parenting, we can improve outcomes for children.

We are thinking about—I would welcome any contribution from my hon. Friend—how we can strengthen parents in the home and support them in talking to their children; how we strengthen the role of fathers as well as mothers; how we provide support at key transition points; how we better develop the peer group support that comes from projects such as home start or the peers early education partnership, which is a good early intervention project whereby, in group situations, mothers are encouraged to develop their children's linguistic skills; and how we can spread those projects.

My hon. Friend described accurately and in detail many of the initiatives that we have taken to tackle child poverty and I echo something that he said. There are two ways that we tackle child poverty. One is through the tax and benefits system, and as a Government we have been incredibly successful in doing that, with a third of children lifted out of poverty through the changes that we have made to tax and benefit. However, the cycle of deprivation will never be stopped simply by intervening in the tax and benefits system. We also have to intervene to provide that equality of opportunity for children through the education system, health, housing and parenting skills. That is where the linguistic agenda comes into its own.

On the balance of funding, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's analysis that we have got it wrong in Britain. We spend more per capita than any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development comparator country on the elite group who go through to higher education, and we spend less than any comparator country on children in their early years. The Danes spend 2.4 per cent. of their gross domestic product on children in those years; despite the investment that we have made since we entered government, we still spend only 0.4 per cent. of our GDP on children in their early years. I know from conversations with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that the issue of children and their early years is central to the political agenda and to the programmes in which the Government are engaged.

The assessment of research is obviously important. Much of the Sure Start programme—we have embarked on 524 Sure Start programmes around the country—is built on the High Scope Perry evidence. We are beginning to find evidence in England of the impact of early multi-disciplinary intervention on children and their families. In one Sure Start programme in Corby, the number of children who have to have a special educational needs assessment has been reduced by 10 per cent. In another programme in a London borough, children who were ref erred to the early-years programme by social services—very needy children—are now performing as well At key stage 1 as middle-class children from more advantaged homes. Leicester saw a 40 per cent. reduction in referrals to social services because of Sure Start and early intervention. We are getting there, and we will continue to review successful interventions.

We are engaged in longitudinal research. I am sure that that research is in the Library, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy. Over a 10-year period, we are evaluating the impact of our interventions through what is known as EPPE—effective provision of pre-school education—research. We will use that knowledge to influence where we go from here.

I want to mention some initiatives that my hon. Friend did not. We haw developed a pedagogical framework for all professionals working with children from birth to three. That is a step forward, and my hon. Friend might like to have a copy of the framework. It will be used by professionals and, we hope, by others to consider how they can best work with children in those early years to develop their potential. It contains a lot of information about speech development. We are now in the process of training professionals to feel comfortable using the "Birth to Three Matters" framework throughout early-years work.

We will also shortly publish a book about children's development from birth to three. We have called it "The Learning Journey: Birth to Three Matters". The book will help us explain to parents how children learn and develop from birth and will offer advice on supporting children's development. We are listening closely to children; one can listen to children from an early age. A project has been undertaken by the Coram family, which I found fascinating when I first went to see the research evidence. The evidence showed how listening to children will improve how one relates to them and will enable them to learn and develop their linguistic skills.

We have commissioned Manchester Metropolitan university to create an early language training programme for us, which will develop training materials to support early-years practitioners. Although in the first phase the focus will be the foundation stage, which involves three to six-year-olds, the project is linked to the "Birth to Three Matters" framework. We will extend it to the nought to three age group at a later stage.

The Sure Start unit is funding the development year of a campaign that we have called "Talk to Your Baby", which has come from the work of the National Literacy Trust. Again, the aim is to raise awareness.

I am delighted that we have had this short debate. This is a key issue. The best possible start for our young children is at the heart of Government policy. We will continue to drive our policies forward, which we believe will improve life chances. Early intervention with a mixture of universal initiatives, targeted support and mainstreaming will pay huge dividends for all our children.

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair)

Order. We come to the final subject for our consideration today: the use of blast cleaning by the armed forces.

I am conscious of the fact that this is an Opposition Supply day and that a Division is due at 4 o'clock. If no one has any news on that, we will commence with Mr. Richard Bacon.