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Providing Opportunities for all Children

Submitted by on 13 Sep 2011 – 17:33

Sarah Teather MPSarah Teather MP, Minister of State for Children and Families

Right from the outset the coalition government made it clear that our first priority was to sort out the financial mess which we inherited from Labour. But we were also clear that we want to achieve so much more than that. Liberal Democrats in Government are committed to building a fair society, and that is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of our social policy. The coming year will see the implementation of important reforms designed to achieve this goal and build a fairer society.

No one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth. All children, no matter where they are born, or how much their parents earn, deserve the best of starts in life. In my first year as Children’s Minister I, along with my colleagues across Government, have started to lay the groundwork to turn this aspiration into a reality. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds now attract additional funding through a Pupil Premium. I am proud that this long cherished Liberal Democrat policy is now being delivered. The challenge now will be to ensure schools use this money to tackle the shameful achievement gap in our education system. Schools are free to spend the money how they wish, but they will rightly be held to account in the coming years for the decisions they make.

But if we are serious about tackling the attainment gap and raise life chances, we must start in the earliest years. That is why, next year, a new, slimmed down early years curriculum for 0-5-year-olds, more focused on making sure children start school ready and able to learn, will be introduced. This will see the end of the 69 early learning goals, which too often created a bureaucratic nightmare for some early years practitioners, and will instead focus on three prime areas of learning critical to making sure children develop healthily and happily. The new curriculum isn’t about hot housing our youngest children or making them sit through formal lessons or exams, but the new structure will create a framework to ensure the settings they are in provide quality care focused around their development.

But we also need to make sure parents get the help and support they need to bring up their children and balance work and family life. For many parents, in these tough economic times, balancing work and family life is more difficult than ever. In the coming year, I will be looking at ways to change the free entitlement hours to help make sure more children can benefit from early education and parents can juggle their working hours more effectively.

In the coming year, much of my time is set to be devoted to improving the support available to children with special educational needs. In March, I published proposals which marked a key milestone in the development of the Government’s approach to supporting children with SEN and their families. Having now consulted with professionals and parents, I will be coming forward with further, more detailed, measures designed to ensure that these children receive the excellent education they deserve. This means making sure services work properly together, not passing the buck so that parents have to fight the system. I want to empower parents, and give them more control over the support available to their family. It also means making sure teachers have the right training and professional development to raise the attainment of children with SEN. And any new system must sit within an environment where innovation is encouraged and professionals don’t feel stifled by unnecessary bureaucracy.

The recent disturbances on the streets of our major cities highlight how important it is to get our policies around education and the early years right. It is clear that people smashing up shop fronts and attacking innocent people didn’t become violent criminals overnight. Many will have grown up in communities lacking any aspiration and will have left the education system setup to fail. In the coming year I will be developing policies around providing support for parents who are struggling but want to see their children succeed. Working with my Liberal Democrat colleague, Ed Davey, who is leading on wide-ranging changes to parental leave, I will be considering what more can be done across government to support every parent. In particular, I want to look at how we can give parents the right information so that they know how to encourage their children’s learning in the home, as well as at nursery or pre-school.

If we can give all children the best of starts in life, by giving their families the support they need and creating an education system which enables them to realise their potential, not only will we create a fairer society, but it will be a safer one too.