New Education Secretary's track record highlights early years interest

By Neil Puffett

| 09 January 2018

Newly appointed Education Secretary Damian Hinds has spoken at length on the importance of early help in the past, suggesting that a rethink is needed on what provision is offered, and how best to support families.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds has spoken at length about early years provision in the past. Picture: UK Parliament

Hinds, who was first elected MP for East Hampshire in 2010, was made Education Secretary yesterday as part of a government reshuffle that saw Justine Greening quit government rather than accepting a move to the Department for Work and Pensions.

His parliamentary record shows that he has spoken at length on early years issues during debates in the House of Commons.

In January 2011, while a member of the education select committee, he spoke during a debate on life chances for disadvantaged children of the transformational impact of early support and engaging hard to reach families.

"If we get the early years and education right, anything is possible," he said.

"We know that quality nurseries and child care are key. Economists have long told us that the marginal £1m or £1bn would be far more effectively spent in early years provision than in tertiary education, but the problem is that that is exactly what we have been doing for the last decade."

However, during the same debate he questioned the effectiveness of children's centres.

Pointing to analysis carried out by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Hinds said that even with all the investment in Sure Start children's centres, the key early predictors of later educational success remained "basically stable".

"We need to think afresh about what is done, how it is done and for whom - how best to reach the hardest to reach," he said.

He reiterated his position three years later in January 2014 during a debate following publication of 1001 Critical Days — a cross-party manifesto on the importance of the conception to age two period by senior MPs Andrea Leadsom, Frank Field, Paul Burstow and Caroline Lucas.

"I pay tribute to the staff in the Sure Start centres in my constituency; they do a fantastic job," he said during the debate.

"We all know that there are fantastic Sure Start children's centres out there, but is also worth dwelling on the fact that at the macro level we may not quite have cracked the formula. If we compare the millennium cohort study with the previous one, for the children who have been alive throughout the Sure Start period, the gap between the rich and the poor has not been narrowed at age five."

A consultation on the future of children's centres had been due to launch in autumn 2015, but is yet to take place and the government is yet to clarify whether the exercise has been dropped completely.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said that in light of ongoing closures to children's centres the new Education Secretary "has a lot of work to do".

"While it's undoubtedly positive that the new secretary of state recognises the importance of a quality early years education in improving social mobility, those beliefs need to be matched by action," Leitch said.

"As it stands, the government's flagship childcare policy privileges those parents who can afford to subsidise government underfunding at the expense of those who can't, leaving some of the poorest children without access to affordable, let alone ‘free', childcare.

"Add to this the fact that many children's centres - a vital resource for those more vulnerable families - are continuing to close as a result of sustained funding cuts, and it's clear the new education secretary has much work to do in this area."

National Day Nurseries Association chief executive Purnima Tanuku said: "We welcome Mr Hinds' previous comments regarding the importance of investing in early years as the best way to reducing inequality between different groups of children.

"Quality is the key, as he rightly says, so we would ask him to increase the investment in the 30 hours funded childcare scheme to make sure this quality continues to be high for all children."

Hinds, who backed the remain campaign in the EU referendum, has also previously called for better access to financial education and support for young people.

He also appears committed to government efforts to promoting character among young people, highlighting its importance in helping young people get on in life.

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