Support for Young Children
In amongst the furore of the News of the World scandal in the last week of the summer term, a group of Labour MPs took to Westminster Hall to discuss an area of great importance to me as a Shadow Minister: school food.
Free school meals should be a vital plank of any government’s approach to tackling child poverty – not only do they reduce the shopping bills of out-of-work parents, they also help to tackle the inequalities in health and educational attainment between children living in poverty and their better-off classmates.
All the evaluation has shown that having a hot, healthy meal in their stomach helps a child concentrate during lessons, and, of course, it is far better for their health than cheap, processed food.
That is why I and others campaigned so hard in the last Parliament to extend eligibility for free school meals to all primary pupils from households earning less than £16,190, a commitment which was made by the Secretary of State and written into our election manifesto.
This would have benefitted half a million children from poor backgrounds, and lifted an estimated 50,000 of them out of poverty at a stroke.
Unfortunately, it was one of the first schemes the new government scrapped.
But there may be a way for some of those who lost out to get some help in future.
The Social Security Advisory Committee are reviewing passported benefits as part of the preparations for the new Universal Credit system, which are well under way despite the fact that Parliament is yet to approve the Welfare Reform Bill.
Free school meals are currently given to children whose parents are unemployed, and withdrawn in most cases as soon as they find work, meaning an instant loss of more than £300 a year per child.
The government’s promise to make work pay means it should be incumbent on them to make sure that this ‘cliff-edge’ is smoothed out.
So when the SSAC issue their recommendations in the new year, I will be pressing the Government to make sure that not only are free school meals given to those children whose parents are unemployed, but also at least some help is given to those from low income families, whose need is often just as great.
This last year has seen a flurry of activity around the whole area of early years.
For a start, it’s no longer called the ‘early years’; on the recommendation of both Frank Field and Graham Allen, we should now refer to the 0-5 period as the Foundation Years.
This was just one of the policies outlined in a Written Ministerial Statement from Children’s Minister Sarah Teather before summer recess – one of 58 published in just two days – announcing the publication of ‘Supporting Families in the Foundation Years’, a wide-ranging tome on the future of provision for children.
It is certainly encouraging that so much focus has been placed on the first years of children’s lives, as study after study shows that what happens in those years has a significant impact on how a child will develop through school and beyond.
However, what the document does not mention is the significant pressure that the Government has already put the foundation years sector under.
For a start, local authorities, who have to deliver these services (or make sure others do), are getting significantly less cash under the new Early Intervention Grant than they did under the previous 22 grants it replaced – more than 20% less, in fact.
And because it has not been ringfenced, that depleted fund can be used to plug the gaps created by the big, front-loaded cuts to the other grants councils get.
So while Whitehall talks about improving services like Sure Start Children’s Centres – relied upon by many families, particularly new, young mums – town halls across the country are being forced to hollow out their centres or close them altogether.
It may not fit with the ‘localism agenda’, but being in government means making sure that money you give out is spent on the things you intended it for – in this case, improving the life chances of children, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds.
That is why I will be pushing over the next year for, at the very minimum, the ringfence to be reinstalled around foundations years and early intervention funding.
This coming Autumn and the new year will also see a return to Support and Aspiration, the government’s Green Paper on provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The consultation closed at the end of June, and the sector is expecting a response from Government before the end of the year.
A focus on improving the ability of children with all manner of difficulties to access and make the most of our education system is certainly welcome. While that support has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, there is still so much more than can and should be done, and it is very encouraging that Ministers clearly want to address this.
However, like the policy statement on early years, the Green Paper makes no mention of the impact that the government’s cuts to local authorities are having on provision right now.
Specialist teachers, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists – all of these professionals and more are being scaled back because local authorities don’t have the cash to maintain budgets.
So while I look forward to working with the government, parents and providers in the coming months to take forward the positive proposals for future provision, I will also be trying to ensure that Ministers acknowledge the damage that they are doing to current provision and take immediate steps to put it right; the chances of children currently in the school system of getting all the help and support they need to achieve to their maximum potential depend on them doing so.
In all three of the areas discussed above, the broad consensus is that spending a little extra on the children who need it – as soon as it becomes apparent that they do – saves many times that amount further down the line.
All MPs recognise the need to get the country on a sound financial footing, but making cuts in these areas simply stores up much more expensive problems for later – not to mention the negative effect on the quality of life of those children who should be getting support.
That’s the message I’ll be taking to conference and back to Parliament, and I hope for the country’s sake that the Government listens.