Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat), former party spokesperson for Early Years Education, Education and Skills, tabled the debate. She began by saying: ‘My Lords, many years ago someone described this country as an island standing on coal and surrounded by fish. Nowadays the treasure of our country is our people and our future fortune is our children. That is why the way in which we nurture and teach them, especially in the early years, is so important to their and our economic future.’
She continued: ‘Parents are the first educators, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that they are well informed and helped to do the world's most difficult and important job. None of us would dream of taking on a difficult task without some appropriate training, so there should never be any stigma attached to parenting classes. Earlier this year my honourable friend Sarah Teather, then the minister of state for children, announced a pilot in three areas offering free parenting classes for all who wanted them.’
She then went on to talk about social mobility, saying: ‘The government's social mobility strategy - a high priority of Nick Clegg - has data showing that high ability children from lower social backgrounds are overtaken by children of lower ability from higher economic backgrounds between the ages of five and seven unless there is some intervention to ensure that all children fulfil their potential. This is a waste of human capital that we can ill afford.’
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Conservative), spoke about early intervention, saying: ‘There are three main benefits in recognising the importance of early years intervention. The first is that prevention is cheaper than cure. By ensuring children are well cared for and educated when they are young we can reduce problems in later life. The second is that it benefits the country greatly through increased achievement and a fall in antisocial behaviour; and thirdly, by addressing the issue for current generations it breaks the cycle for their children, which will reduce future problems.’
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour), opposition spokesperson for education, questioned the government: ‘We have to be concerned about the recent proposals of Elizabeth Truss, now an education minister, that far from driving up standards and professionalism in early years, the sector should be deregulated and replaced by a mums' army of volunteers. She has also, as I understand it, proposed that childminders could increase the maximum number of children in their care, from three to five. This would certainly be one way of reducing costs, but it goes against all the knowledge we have acquired on the impact of high-quality, early years care on later development.’
Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative), parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, responded on behalf of the government.