Jayne Dowle: Technology no magic fix for loss of family support for education

the Government is now committed to tackling early years literacy, but do Ministers have the answers?
the Government is now committed to tackling early years literacy, but do Ministers have the answers?
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THE Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has a lot to learn. In a major speech on social mobility this week, he sounded perplexed. Children are starting formal education unable to speak or read in full sentences. And even by the end of reception year, more than a quarter of four and five-year-olds don’t meet expected communication and literacy levels.

At the other end of the spectrum, older children are leaving care with no clue what to do with the rest of their lives; the proportion who are not in education, employment or training has risen from 32 per cent in 2010 to 40 per cent last year.

What does he expect? His government – and several governments before this one – have presided over a series of policy decisions which have directly impacted on the life chances of millions of families.

Mr Hinds, who says he is committed to bridging the yawning chasm which continues to swallow our disadvantaged young people, thinks technology is the answer. His idea involves persuading parents to divert their toddlers away from CBeebies towards worthwhile on-screen time which will help them to develop their language and communication skills.

It’s finding favour in unexpected places, including the Labour benches where Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell, who was briefly Shadow Education Secretary, tweeted her support for “supporting families at home”.

Am I missing the point? To me, it’s an announcement which could have come straight out of BBC political satire The Thick Of It. Here we are with countless ordinary parents who find it perfectly acceptable to wheel their babies around the supermarket with iPads fixed to their prams. You can even buy special brackets to hold the technology steady. So, goes the script, how do we make political capital out of this, and look as if we’re committed to raising educational standards?

I know. Hand all responsibility over to those lazy, feckless parents. And, while we’re about it, conveniently forget that our party has presided over the closure of more than 1,000 Sure Start centres in England in the last eight years, thereby withdrawing support for disadvantaged families arguably just when they need it the most.

Like many people – including Jo Miller, who is president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and chief executive of Doncaster MBC – I don’t consider Sure Start to have been the panacea for all ills. She’s been speaking out too this week, as her own organisation launches a project to find innovative ways of strengthening communities to provide a better safety net.

However, the provision of neighbourhood services to support and help families, introduced under Tony Blair’s government, made a significant contribution towards the well-being of isolated families who just needed a helping hand.

A couple of years ago, the University of Oxford undertook a comprehensive study into children’s centres which showed that Sure Start worked when properly funded by contributing to less-disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health and improved social skills.

I would take my own two children to our nearest one when they were small. Sometimes it was just a cup of tea and a biscuit and a singalong. However, friendships and networks were formed and discreet help given to those who needed it.

In between rounds of Wheels on the Bus, I would observe workers and volunteers looking out for mothers who felt sad or excluded, helping them to believe in themselves. And I also know that some of those nervous mothers gained in confidence so much that they went on to become support workers and volunteers to help others in turn.

Quoting an ancient proverb, Ms Miller says “it takes a village to raise a child”. She’s right. And this is where the Education Secretary is wrong. Raising resilient children is not about putting the onus on individual parents and shutting the door.

It’s about pulling together. Much of the weave and weft of the fabric which held together the kind of communities Ms Miller and I grew up in has eroded. She grew up on a council estate in Liverpool, the daughter of a dinner lady. My dad was a steelworker and I grew up in Barnsley.

Pits and heavy industry have gone, taking steady incomes with them, communal social activities have declined and in so many heart-breaking cases, traditional family structures have broken down beyond repair.

Welfare reforms, cuts to public transport and inadequate housing have also done their bit, and we’re left with many parents so exhausted that the last thing they have energy for is teaching their children how to form complete sentences. I suggest the next time Mr Hinds is moved to tell these parents that technology can wave a magic wand, he looks further than his phone.