A third of children in Greater Manchester are not prepared for their first day at school – it's time we changed that
The reality is it is harder to be a young parent today. Many do not have a basic income that will allow them to feed their children properly, never mind buy books to help with reading
Today is the first day at school for about 35,000 children across Greater Manchester.
But for many, the first year in reception is much harder than for others.
A third of the children starting today – around 12,000 – will not be "school-ready". This means they won't have the basic language and social skills to start learning straight away.
As a result, many will fall behind their classmates from day one. They will perhaps struggle for confidence and self-esteem. All the evidence shows some will never catch up that lost ground.
There is a tendency amongst some commentators to blame the parents. The Whitehall jargon is that these are “troubled families”. But that narrative conveniently shifts any responsibility for the problem away from the Government.
The reality is it is harder to be a young parent today. In Greater Manchester, many do not have a basic income that will allow them to feed their children properly, never mind buy books to help with reading or go on days out to local museums and other attractions.
Many young parents today are “time-poor” too – doing two or even three insecure, part-time jobs. They simply cannot invest the same time at home as those in more secure employment.
It is also the case that, in an expensive and unregulated housing market, many young parents struggle to create a safe and secure home environment for their children. They are forced to live in private rented housing and too many private landlords fail to maintain those properties to a decent standard.
Of course, parents have to take their share of responsibility for helping their children get ready for school. But society is not fulfilling its side of the bargain.
It is time for people on the right of politics to face up to the fact that a low-paid, zero hours gig economy is not conducive to supporting family life. Too many children are starting life with the odds stacked against them. It is why Britain remains a highly unequal country.
Here in Greater Manchester, we want to do something about it.
In recent years, we have been laying strong foundations. Our ten local authorities have been working together to focus on the first 22 months of a child’s life and provide support to those who need it most.
This work has already started to pay dividends with the percentage of children in Greater Manchester achieving a good level of development, or school-readiness, increasing from 47 per cent to 68 per cent in recent years.
But we still lag behind the England average and those from the lowest-income backgrounds have not seen the same levels of improvement.
So how will we create a Greater Manchester where no child is left behind?
We will start by dropping the phrase “troubled families” from all of our discussions and adopting a new, non-judgmental approach. It will be based on the recognition that poor rates of school-readiness are in large part a product of our unequal and insecure society.
Next, we will set a new ambition. At the heart of a refreshed Greater Manchester Strategy will be the goal that, in five years' time, Greater Manchester will exceed the national average for the proportion of children reaching a ‘good level of development’ at the end of reception.
To achieve this, we will ask all public bodies in Greater Manchester to sign a public pledge to make improving school-readiness a pre-eminent goal and to work together to achieving it.
Primary schools in particular could have a major part to play but, at present, we are not maximising their contribution. For instance, if we could provide schools with the names of local one and two year-olds who are at risk of falling behind, they will have an incentive to start working with them at an earlier age. For some, that will be one way in which they can lift their SAT results.
My hope is that, in Greater Manchester, we can pioneer a completely new approach to public service delivery, where we break down the silos between public services and encourage them to collaborate on prevention rather than individually picking up the pieces. We can promote a Greater Manchester model of public service delivery that is truly preventative and person-centred.
But we are kidding ourselves if we think this issue can be solved by public services alone. We need to help our communities do more to solve it for themselves.
As part of our new drive, I want to see community, voluntary and faith groups working with public services treated as equal partners with the public sector in this mission.
This means giving them long-term, core funding to work in communities where more support is needed, providing mentors and volunteers who might help with advice and childcare. The principle behind it is simple this: the more security you give to the community and voluntary sector, the more it will be able to give back.
More broadly, we also need to address insecure employment and poor housing. So we are looking to introduce an Employers' Charter which will underpin a “Greater Manchester Good Employer” kitemark; and a code for the private-rented sector as part of a "GM Good Landlord" scheme.
Sadly, in England in 2017, it remains the case that the postcode of the bed you are born in still pretty much determines where you end up in life.
For as long as a third of children arrive in reception class not “school-ready”, this will not change and England will continue to be an unequal country.
That’s why, here in Greater Manchester, we are on a mission to change it. We are pledged to reduce that 12,000 number every year until no child is left behind.
That is the opportunity which our devolution provides and we intend to seize it.
Andy Burnham is Mayor of Greater Manchester