Sarah Teather’s speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats
"Education… beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery."
The quote is from Horace Mann, the great 19th century American reformer. But it speaks to the instincts of liberals here with as much resonance as then.
The scandal is that though it should be true, it isn't.
You will hear many people talk this week about the shocking state of the nation's finances that was Labour's legacy. I want to talk about another of Labour's legacies: the shocking inequality at the heart of the nation's education system.
A system where the poorest children start school behind and fall further behind at every stage.
Where poor seven-year olds are twice as likely to fall short in reading and writing than their richer peers.
Where the poorest 16-year olds are three times as likely to fail to get five good GCSEs as the richest.
Labour didn't only waste money - they wasted the chance to make a difference for our children.
We have come to expect that poverty will inevitably always go hand in hand with poor attainment. But in other countries it does not necessarily follow.
Something in the way society functions, in the way education works, makes children elsewhere more resilient, more self confident, more aspirational, better able to benefit from what education has to offer, and so escape their family background.
Conference, it is not acceptable that poor children to fail. That reflects badly on the complacency of the previous Government, and it reflects badly on the complacency of our society.
We have to put it right.
It is our ambition that every child will be the author of his or her own life story, will be able to fulfil his or her own potential, not bound by the confines of their family background, of their parent's job or wealth, or of other's expectations.
To break the link between your birth and your fate: this is our task. It is the reason we are in Government.
It is the reason I came into politics.
It is not an easy task. But it is the challenge we have chosen to take on, and carefully, and consistently, we have begun to try and tilt the playing field, back in favour of those children and families who are falling behind.
What do we know about how best to make that difference?
Inequality starts early. A bright child from a poor background in Harlesden in my constituency will already have begun to fall behind at two. Life's race is too often lost long before they start school.
Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that we need to intervene early.
So we're reviewing the early years curriculum for every child and every nursery. It will be simpler for parents and more focused on how children develop and learn. And I've just announced a review of workforce qualifications, to make sure the best people are working with our youngest children.
But that won't help, unless it reaches the children who most need it.
So, Liberal Democrats in government have extended the free hours of early years education for all three and four year olds. For the first time, we will make 15 hours of early education available to all disadvantaged two year olds.
And this early education will become a legal entitlement.
And today I can make a further announcement.
I will shortly be launching a consultation on how councils will decide which children are eligible.
I'll propose that first and foremost every family who meet the criteria for free school meals should qualify, along with looked after children.
What's more, we know that some children with special educational needs and disabilities could particularly benefit from extra support at an early stage.
So I'm proposing that councils should be free to offer it to these other groups if they choose.
I have seen the difference this commitment will make.
Children whose confidence and vocabulary has been radically changed because of these crucial hours of early education.
Children who will begin school further ahead because of help they had at a critical time.
Conference, these children will have a fairer start in life because Liberal Democrats fought for it and Liberal Democrats in Government made it happen.
That's not all we're changing. Since April this year, schools in England have had an additional £625m to spend on the pupil premium.
Schools up and down the country are already using this extra money to help children who otherwise would have fallen behind their peers.
Extra individual tuition.
Parent support advisors.
Out of school clubs.
We'll be sharing evidence about what works, and making sure that schools are held to account on the results they achieve.
We have to do more.
Today I can announce that, next year, the amount of money available for the pupil premium will double to £1.25bn. Doubling the amount of support schools are able to offer their most disadvantaged students.
Conference, five years ago, as your Education spokesperson in opposition, I asked you to support the pupil premium. You went out and campaigned on it. Nick Clegg championed it. It was on the front page of our manifesto. We put it at the centre of our coalition negotiations and we made sure it was protected it in the spending review.
Conference, children across the country will have a fairer start in life because Liberal Democrats fought for it and Liberal Democrats in Government made it happen.
I'd like here to thank my parliamentary colleagues Joan Walmsley, Dan Rogerson, Simon Wright and Tessa Munt, and Cllr Gerald Vernon Jackson and James Kempton who sit on the Education Department's advisory group. They have worked tirelessly over the past year to support me in working to close the achievement gap left by Labour.
A fairer school admissions systems.
A better deal for children excluded from school.
Strengthened access to vocational education, and so much more.
Together, we are tackling Labour's wasted years.
Years when youth unemployment increased by over a third.
Years when thousands of young people were pushed towards qualifications that didn't lead to college or a job.
Years when our young people fell further behind their compatriots in other developed countries.
Conference, Labour may have thought this was a record to be proud of but we do not.
If we're going to turn around the entrenched relationship between poverty and life chances, yes, quality education is an important part of the story.
But it is only one piece of the jigsaw.
We all know what marks the difference between the 5 year old who begins school confident, sociable, able to read and write their own name, compared with the child who isn't ready for school. It is as much to do with the head start they were offered at home by their family.
Strong, stable, confident parenting.
Mothers and fathers spending time with children, reading them stories, engaging with their education.
And yet just this week UNICEF published a report showing how our parents feel under so much more pressure than in other countries, so much less confident in their parenting ability. They struggle in finding time for their children.
Liberals have traditionally said that it is not Government's job to interfere in family life.
But if we are serious about allowing each individual to realise their full potential, it must surely be Government's job to create the kind of society in which all families are able to flourish. The kind of society which fosters a safe, stable and happy environment in which children can grow and develop.
Every family goes through tough times, but if you don't have family close by, if you are bringing up a child on your own, if your health is poor or you are out of work things can be really difficult. If you are lucky, friends and family can step in. But if you aren't, if we are going to provide that fair start for every child, we need to offer families the support they need.
That is why the Government is investing in relationship support. £30m over the next four years.
That is why Ed Davey has proposed to extend parental leave to both parents, to give families more flexibility and to encourage both parents to play their part.
That is why Children's Centres are so important - with a new core purpose, clearer that they're accessible to all, but more focused on what works for the most disadvantaged and needy families.
And we are now identifying some of the best Children's Centres to become centres of excellence, training others in offering support, and making changes so that parents and community groups can be more involved in how they are run.
But we want to do more. To respond to those parents who say they are under pressure, and would like more information on what to expect, more ideas on how to cope, and more ideas for helping their child learn and develop.
So I can announce today that the Government will shortly begin piloting an offer of voluntary parenting classes for every parent of a child under 5 in three or four areas.
This is a direct response to the evidence that the home learning environment is the biggest single determinant of your child's future success. Where parents support their children to learn, the link between poverty and poor attainment can be broken.
SOCIETY AFTER THE RIOTS
But bringing up children isn't just a job for parents. It is all of our responsibility.
The riots this summer gave most of us pause for thought. Many theories were proffered in the immediate aftermath, some more ludicrous than others.
Liberal Democrats in Government have tried to take a more thoughtful approach.
And in responding to what we saw on our television screens, we also saw differences between the political parties.
Differences in their values, and what they believed for the future of our country.
For me, it provoked many deeper questions about the kind of society we are trying to create, the kind of society we want our children to grow up in.
Our schools - are they places where children are happy and safe, and want to learn or are they places where a macho, and "have that now" culture gets in the way of aspiration and achievement?
Our families and friendships - are they built on strong relationships, or, as that UNICEF report suggested, are they too often filled with "stuff" we can buy as a substitute for valuable time?
Our communities - are they places that encourage children to be children, or are they dominated by what adults want and desire?
Our country - is it one where individual rights are cherished and protected, or where the response to threat is to clamp down harder? Is it one where your birth is allowed to equal your fate, or where we use the nation's resources to fight against it?
Conference, it is time to think again about how we value children and young people, how we portray them, and what part they play in society.
It is time to challenge Labour's wasted years.
It is time to be strong in standing up for human rights, for children's rights, and for a society that is free and fair for all.
Liberal Democrats, you fought for a fair start for every child. And in government, that is what we will deliver.