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Nick Clegg's speech to the Pre-School Learning Alliance

February 19, 2015 10:31 AM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

In a speech to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg outlined the party's vision for a world-class early years education system.

A transcript of Nick's speech is below.

Today, I want to talk to you about the Liberal Democrats' vision to build a world-class early years education system in Britain.

Over the last five years, we've made it one of our biggest priorities in this Government to ensure that every child - whatever their background or circumstances - gets an equal shot at the successful future they deserve.

That starts with the opportunities we give them to thrive in education.

And, through our investment in the £2.5 billion Pupil Premium and relentless focus on driving up standards in schools across the country, we're starting to see the results of disadvantaged young children improve as they leave primary school. But we know that what happens in school is only part of the picture.

From the moment we're born, we begin to learn and develop.

But what research increasingly shows is just how much these first few months and years will go on to determine how well we do at school and in the rest of our lives.

So much so that, if you're a child born into a poor family in this country, you will already have fallen behind a child with richer parents by the time you're 2 years old.

That's before you step anywhere near a classroom and it has absolutely nothing to do with your talent or potential - just the circumstances of your birth.

Without focused action to change it, that gap between you and your peers will continue to get bigger as you grow up.

So that when you turn up, proudly wearing your new uniform, for your first day of school, you will be well over a year behind your better-off classmates.

Morally and economically, we simply cannot afford for so many children to have their future written off like that in this country.

Especially when we can do something about it by increasing access to high-quality early years education for more families.

Research shows that the children who have attended a high quality pre-school do better in reading and maths aged six than those who have not. And this positive start impacts the whole of their time in school.

Children who receive early years education develop better literacy skills, behaviour and concentration, boosting their exam results and earning potential later.

That's why one of the Coalition Government's first decisions, despite the tough economic climate, was to increase the hours of funded early years education available for every family with a three and four year old from 12.5 to 15 hours a week.

Critically, we then extended this free childcare offer to low-income families with a two year old, making this entitlement available to around 260,000 young toddlers across the country.

Building on the success of the Pupil Premium, we've also created our new £50 million Early Years Pupil Premium. This provides extra support to poorer children to help them catch up with their peers and achieve their full potential.

As the experts, you decide how this money should be spent - with an additional £300 for 3 and 4 year olds from low-income families.

That's not all we have done to support families. In addition, we've overhauled our parental leave system. Modern families come in all shapes and sizes now, and more women have joined the workforce than ever before - helping to drive Britain's recovery.

But, looking at the parental leave system in 2010, you would have thought that very little had changed since the 1950s - with fathers still only allowed to take two weeks off when their baby is first born and mothers up to a year.

Of course, some parents choose to stay at home and they have every right to do so. Yet what about the families where the woman is the main breadwinner; the working fathers who want to spend more time with their children or the couples who want to care for their families and also progress in their careers?

In the Liberal Democrats, we've always believed that the system should support their choices too. So, from April this year, parents will finally be able to share the parental leave available between them, choosing what works best for them.

This also builds on our work with companies to extend the right to request flexible working to every employee. So, people who want to balance their responsibilities at home and at work more flexibly can do so.

This includes those grandparents, family members and friends who want to help out the parents they know with childcare.

Together, these important first steps add up to what I believe is a better Britain for our children. None of this progress would have been possible without the support of organisations like the PSLA.

It's your members, not us, making these childcare reforms a reality for millions of families every day. Thank you. Your insight, support and expertise is invaluable and I hope your organisation will continue to be the frank, open and honest friend you've always been: pushing us on.

That doesn't mean we will always agree with each other. As Neil said in his speech earlier, it's clear you have reservations about the provision of more early years education in schools.

I want to be equally clear that we are not looking to create a future where every nursery and primary school is filled with rows and rows of toddlers learning their times tables by rote in preparation for splitting the atom at 7. The Liberal Democrats would never sign up to that.

But, with more parents entering the workforce, we need as wide a range of high quality providers available as possible to support families.

We believe that increasing early years provision in schools is one way to do that. And, with a well-qualified workforce, many are already delivering for young children.

Where possible, we want to see them build on this. At the same time, we remain relentlessly focused on ensuring children receive the best standards of care possible and get the chance to play and have fun as they develop in their earliest years.

I also recognise that funding is going to continue to be a big issue for you - especially in the current economic climate. In this Coalition, my party and I have done everything we possibly can to protect Government's investment in childcare.

And by the end of this parliament, funding for childcare will have risen by more than £1 billion to £6 billion a year.

It's one of the reasons why, I believe, we've seen so much growth in this sector over the last few years, with many new early years providers signing up to offer free hours.

As part of that extra investment, the amount we give to Local Authorities to fund our free childcare offers is based on a higher hourly rate than the national average early years providers charge parents.

That's according to the Department for Education's own evidence and the most recent Family and Childcare Trust annual surveys. From the beginning, we've been adamant that this money should be used to help more young children get the best possible start in life. We don't want it spent on anything else.

And we will continue to push Local Authorities to pass on as much of this funding as possible to frontline providers.

In fact, I'm very clear that the only way for us to really shift the dial on this is to focus even more of our efforts and investment on securing our children's future.

That's why the Liberal Democrats are the only party with a long-term plan to create a world-class early years education sector.

Our vision is that every child, whatever their background, will have access to high quality pre-school education; and that every working parent will have the childcare support they need when returning to work.

For us, this means five big things: one, making access to high-quality, funded early years education universal from 2 years old; two, doing more for our most disadvantaged children; three, securing the best-qualified early years workforce possible; four, ensuring our ambitions are properly funded and five, reducing the costs of childcare for all working families.

Firstly, we've already taken some important steps forward to increase the availability of free childcare for thousands more families - extending free early years education for all three and four year olds and introducing 15 hours of funded childcare for 40% of two year olds - those from the most hard pressed homes.

These measures are helping to both ease the pressure of childcare costs for family's household budgets and, critically, boost social mobility.

We want to build on that progress. So, in the next parliament, the Liberal Democrats will start by providing 15 hours a week of free early years education to every family with a two year old.

On average, this will save the families new to this offer the equivalent of £2,540 a year. And when we can, it's ultimately our long-term ambition to increase the number of hours of free childcare Government funds from 15 to 20 hours a week across the board.

Secondly, just like in the schools system where we've pumped in further investment through the Pupil Premium, we will make sure you have the extra resources necessary to make a difference to our most disadvantaged toddlers.

We will increase the Early Years Pupil Premium from £300 to £1,000 per child, per year - boosting the support you can give to these children.

That could be specialist one on one support, bringing in more qualified staff with expertise in particular areas such as speech therapy or training your workforce more widely.

Whatever you think will help that child. This will deliver an Early Years Pupil Premium that is higher pro rata than the primary school Pupil Premium - because we know investing in our youngest children makes the most difference.

Thirdly, all the research shows the incredible impact highly qualified staff can have on childhood development. And, since 2010, we've worked to make this a career of choice for more talented young people.

This includes new bursaries for early years apprentices, extending the Teach First scheme to early years education and simplifying the registration arrangements for new providers.

But we still haven't gone far enough to give early years professionals the same esteem and status as our best teachers.

That's why the Liberal Democrats will create clearer and simpler routes for early years professionals to obtain Qualified Teacher Status and fair pay when you get there.

The Liberal Democrats have already committed to ensuring that every child in school is taught by a qualified teacher. I see no reason why we shouldn't have those same high standards in the early years system too.

It's my ambition that, by 2020, every childcare setting should have a member of staff who holds Qualified Teacher Status.

To help us meet that goal, we will make sure that the qualified professionals working in this sector won't have to restart their training from scratch.

You already have incredible expertise in how to nurture and inspire young minds. And we believe that this professional knowledge, embodied in your existing early years qualifications, should be a stepping-stone towards you achieving full Qualified Teaching Status.

This is about increasing the opportunities both you and the children you care for have to progress.

Fourthly, we're very clear that none of this can be done on the cheap. If you're arguing for a fairer society, then you have to put the necessary financial fuel in the tank to get you there.

It's just not possible if, like the Conservatives, you commit to keep cutting public services for ideological reasons even after the deficit has been reduced. And it's also not possible if you're burning pots of money paying off interest on a growing public debt like Labour.

Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have not committed to protecting funding for early years education in the next parliament.

We estimate this could mean budgets being cut by a quarter. Just imagine what that might mean for the services you provide. We estimate it could equate to the loss of almost 290,000 funded child care places or over 140 hours of free childcare per child, per year - the equivalent of around £625 on the childcare bill of every family with a three or four year old in the country.

That's in addition to the £12 billion worth of cuts they plan for welfare, which would cost 8 million low-income families £1,500 a year.

Labour's approach is no less dismal. From what it is possible to decipher of their plans, Labour will not balance the books until the end of the next parliament - that's more years of spending restraint than necessary, supplemented with higher and higher borrowing.

It means borrowing £70 billion more than our plan and wasting around £4 billion more on paying the interest on our debt - money that could be spent on education and hospitals instead.

Only the Liberal Democrats can guarantee stability and fairness.

Only the Liberal Democrats can offer light at the end of the tunnel.

So we'll make the tough decisions necessary to finish the job: taking a balanced approach to cuts, tax and spending that asks the wealthiest in our society to contribute a little more.

It's through that balanced approach that we can invest in the Liberal Democrats' priorities such as education and childcare. And when we've balanced the books - clearing the structural deficit - the Liberal Democrats will increase public spending in line with Britain's economic growth.

We will cut less than the Conservatives and borrow less than Labour. We'll finish the job, but we'll finish it fairly. Our record in Government backs that up.

We worked hard to secure the right amount of funding to support the 2 year-old offer. We fought to secure the £100 million in capital funding needed to help create extra nursery space.

We prevented changes to child-care ratios for young children. And we ensured that funding was maintained at its current levels for the 3 and 4 year-old offer.

In the next parliament, we will do the same again. I want to see early years protected in the same way schools have been protected in this parliament.

That's why the front page of our manifesto states we will protect education funding from cradle to college - including early years, schools and 16-19 education. We're fighting for what's best for Britain's children and families.

This brings me to my final point, giving more help to working families. As today's Family and Childcare Trust Survey confirms, with demand increasing, the cost of childcare is rising.

In the Liberal Democrats, we recognise that pressure on working parents to budget for their childcare costs doesn't just start when their child is two years old, and their entitlement to funded hours kicks in, but when their parental leave ends.

In the next parliament, we are committed to help these families bridge that gap. That's why the Liberal Democrats will make 15 hours of free early years education available to all working parents from the end of their paid parental leave at 9 months right through until their child is 2, and the existing provision begins.

On average, this will save working parents the equivalent of £2,670 a year.

We will also give extra support to those families who need childcare in addition to these funded hours: firstly, by completing the rollout of tax-free childcare.

So that, from autumn this year, if you're a family with children under 12 and you don't receive tax credits, Universal Credit or Employer Supported Childcare, but both parents are working or you're a lone working parent - the government will provide 20% of your child care costs up to £10,000 a year.

This will cover parents working full-time and part-time as well as, for the first time ever, those mums and dads who run their own businesses. It equates to £2,000 per child, per year for every working family - except those on extremely high wages.

And, secondly, in 2016, we will boost the childcare support within Universal Credit by around £350 million, to increase the contribution Government makes to childcare costs from 70% to 85%.

This is for lone parents or couples in work who pay income tax and rely on Universal Credit to make childcare affordable or even possible. And we estimate this could help out around 500,000 households by an average of £60 per month.

So, a commitment to universal free early years education from 2 to 4 year olds; extra support for working parents with childcare; a boosted Early Years Pupil Premium; and a highly qualified early years workforce given the status they deserve.

That's the Liberal Democrat's vision for a world-class early years education system.

We are the only party with the clear commitment and plan, backed with the funding needed, to make it happen.

We want a stronger economy and fairer society for Britain, where every child - whatever their circumstances or background - gets the best possible start in life.

So, keep working with us, and I and my party will continue to do everything we can to build a more successful and more family friendly country fit for our children to grow up in.

Thank you.