I came into politics to make a difference for the most disadvantaged in our society. It is over three years since I, as Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, championed the Pupil Premium as our flagship education policy and debated it at Conference. I never dared imagine a time when I would be unveiling it as Government policy and then actually implementing it. But this week, the Coalition Government announced that a Pupil Premium, funded from outside the schools budget, will be introduced next September. It will mean that from next year, schools taking disadvantaged children will get the additional money they need to provide them with the extra support they deserve, no matter where they are in the country. This could mean more individual tuition or catch-up classes, but it will be for the school to decide, we won’t be telling headteachers how to spend the money.
This is a real Liberal Democrat achievement. It was the centrepiece of our education policy during the election campaign, and it is now being implemented in Government. While the Conservatives had a similar policy, it was the Liberal Democrats who pushed for it to be funded from outside the schools budget, and for it to feature specifically in the coalition agreement. And it’s no secret that it was one of the sticking points of the negotiations with Labour – they simply refused to agree to it. I find this shocking – a policy designed to support the most vulnerable in our society and give them the chances that other children have – rejected by the Labour Party. If any of us ever needed another example of Labour’s complete failure to represent the most poor, and the emptiness of their rhetoric, this is it. Make no mistake, it is the Liberal Democrats who are now the party for the most disadvantaged, championing policies like the Pupil Premium in opposition, placing them at the heart of our manifesto, and making them happen in government.
Liberal Democrats are committed to the Pupil Premium because we understand that education can be a key driver of social mobility. But it is shameful that we still have an education system which too often perpetuates inequality rather than tackles it. The poorest children are only half as likely to leave school with 5 good GCSEs than their better-off classmates. The Pupil Premium will help in tackling Labour’s failure to break the link between social background and performance at school, opening up opportunities for children regardless of where they are born.
The Coalition Government is now consulting on the way in which the premium should be implemented. The consultation includes options for how deprivation should be calculated
And it includes questions about other groups who might benefit, such as children in care or children of those serving in the armed forces, and raises the issue of how it could be extended to cover children in the early years. We are determined that it has the best possible impact and I urge you to get involved in the consultation and to give the Department for Education your views.
This week the Coalition Government’s Academies Bill will also become law. In my view the Liberal Democrats have long been opponents of the “command and control” way that Labour managed the school system, and in favour of more freedom for schools, a more strategic role for Local Authorities, reformed pay and conditions and more flexibility for headteachers to run their schools as they and their communities think best. And, by working within the Coalition, Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords have been able to secure important protections for the most vulnerable, such as children with Special Educational Needs, that we could not have done from the Opposition benches. This is what coalition means – the Academies Bill is a flagship Conservative policy and the pupil premium is a flagship Liberal Democrat policy – and they are both part of our programme for Government.
Outside the glare of the public spotlight, in my role as Minister for Children and Families, I am also leading many other changes that the Liberal Democrats have fought for as part of our pledge to make sure every child gets a fair start in life. In the last few weeks we have started to review the Early Years Foundation Stage, to plan changes to make the system for children with Special Educational Needs fairer, extended free childcare and begun to consider how to tackle the commercialisation of children. I am working with Ministers across Government to deliver on the Coalition’s commitment to end child poverty in the UK by 2020, and am part of the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Childhood and Families – focused on removing the barriers to a stable and secure family life for families of all shapes and sizes.
There is no doubt that these are difficult times to be in Government. The financial legacy left by Labour means that we will simply not be able to afford to do all the things we would like to do. But I am clear, by being in Government and working hard, the Liberal Democrats can make a real difference.
I want Britain to be a fairer, more liberal place. For the first time in generations the Liberal Democrats are now making real progress towards achieving this goal.
Sarah Teather is the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central and the Minister of State for Children & Families.