I was glad to contribute to the Opposition Day Debate on Investing in Children and Young People. While there are no doubt some enormous challenges to tackle, I welcome the general steps by the Government to invest in areas which will actually make a tangible difference to the outcomes of children. The arguments from the opposition were little more than we need to spend more money, with little regard for the nuances or how we can best help those who have been left behind.
I wanted to highlight and pay tribute to two areas in particular; the first is the support programmes being rolled out across England to not only feed vulnerable children, but also to support other activities to help with their wider social development and safeguarding; the second area I am pleased to support is the significant investment going into the professional development of our early years workforce. These years are some of the most informative years of a child's development and so this £150 million investment is a commitment to support staff and support the measures which will make a difference.
You can read my full contribution to the debate below:
It has been a great pleasure for me in my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner to have engaged directly today with children from Holy Trinity Primary School in Northwood, and a few weeks ago, in a direct personal visit, with children at Cannon Lane Primary School. It is very clear how much progress those children are making now that they are back in the classroom and how much they are enjoying being back with their friends.
The message that I have consistently received from headteachers, school staff and mums and dads is that they have valued enormously the support that has been put in place—the priority that the Government have rightly placed on ensuring that children can access education where it has been safe to do so and on ensuring that schools are able to reopen and stay open. Education is important not only in its own right, but in the way it supports the economy.
I pay particular tribute to the work of the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), in leading the programme to support the most vulnerable children in my community and communities across England. The roll-out of the programme has included not just ensuring that children get fed, but promoting other activities to help to keep their education, their social development and their lives on track and ensure that they are safeguarded. For me, that is probably the most important lesson from the pandemic: to recognise the complexity of the circumstances that the most vulnerable children in our country face, and acknowledge that local authorities, which know their communities best and are generally already engaged with those children and their families, are in the best place to design packages of support.
It is right that the siren calls for a simple extension of free school meals have been resisted: they do not help many households in which the children are below school age, for example, and they do not help households which, for whatever reason, have not made an application. It is very clear that we need a much more nuanced and targeted approach if we are to make a genuine difference in the lives of those children.
Hon. Members have raised a variety of concerns. It has certainly been very clear to me from speaking to headteachers that there have been issues with the availability of tutors under the national tutoring programme; the quality of what is available has been good, but sometimes identifying the support required has been a challenge. That goes to the heart of what I think is a reasonable criticism of the Opposition motion: we need to ensure that we have qualified, experienced people able to do what they need to do to help children to get their lives back on track. A motion that is about simply spending more money, not thinking about where we will identify those people and get them into jobs to make the difference that they need to make, is not worth the paper it is written on. We need to ensure that we can demonstrate that anything debated by this House is credible.
It is clear, once again, that the role of local authorities in supporting schools has been critical. I certainly would not criticise regional schools commissioners, but it is clear that the scale of their task and their inability to engage at a micro-local level, particularly with directors of public health, has been an inhibiting factor in the response that schools have been asked to produce to the pandemic crisis. We need to ensure that we look at how local authorities interact with all the schools for which they are a champion in their local area, so that in future we have the resilience that is required at a local level. Especially as we look at a more localised approach as we unlock the country in June, we need to ensure that that capacity is in place locally.
I will finish on what I think has been a really positive decision by my hon. Friends at the Department for Education to invest significantly in the professional development of our early years workforce. As all parents of young children know, it can make a transformational difference, especially to the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, if they can access high-quality early education. The structure in place with tax-free childcare and free hours has enabled the capacity to be created for people to access. It is absolutely welcome that the Government have made the decision to invest a very significant sum—approximately £150 million—in the development of that workforce, so that we can ensure for future generations that we have the top-quality staff in place who can give children the very best start in life. That is an example of practical action: not just promising money, but choosing to do the thing that will make the difference in a child’s life.