Nick puts schools at heart of vision for fairness

Nick Clegg today set out the importance of early years education in tackling inequality in a speech to the Salvation Army. Here’s how reports it:

Nick Clegg has placed inequality firmly at the centre of the Liberal Democrat’s education policy and attacked the Tories for not costing their plans for schools. In a keynote speech on education, Mr Clegg said his party’s ‘pupil premium’ policy would see disadvantaged children receive as much funding for education as private school pupil. Headmasters [and presumably Headmistresses? – Ed.] would then be able to spend that money on reducing class sizes.

Nick’s speech has earned the praise of Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers union:

The approach the Liberal Democrats have taken to education reform in a tough financial climate is genuinely refreshing. It would appear that the Liberal Democrats have understood that the last thing you do in times of financial hardship is cut back on the opportunities to boost support for education. Internationally the most far sighted countries are using their education system to prepare for the economic upturn. Nick Clegg appears to have understood this.”

Nick’s speech in full appears below:

I’d like to thank the Salvation Army for inviting me to speak today.

Last winter, I went out with your Sheffield branch at the crack of dawn to try and help some rough sleepers.
It was a wet cold morning, and we found ourselves in a derelict warehouse, windows smashed, rubble and refuse everywhere, needles strewn across the floor, where people were sleeping in the most horrible conditions imaginable.

And – for the first time – I truly understood the reach the Salvation Army has.
Right into the most distressing, most hidden, parts of our society.
Where you help people without judgement, without prejudice, without expectation.
An ethos which represents the best side of all of us.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate you particularly for your Seeds of Exclusion Programme.
That work has been enormously revealing in terms of the complex relationships between the different forces that lead to social exclusion.

There is a simple principle that the Salvation Army, the Liberal Democrats, and many of the organisations here today share:

It’s this: the fortunes of someone’s life should not be decided at their birth.
A person’s fate shouldn’t be settled by their sex, their colour, their postcode, or their parents’ bank balance.
In a fair society no one can tell you to lower your sights because – no matter how hard you try – the things you dream of somehow aren’t for you.

I want to talk about that society today.
About how we don’t live in it yet, but about how we can.
If we are willing to tackle the unfairness that sends some children along one path while others are left behind.
If we intervene to head off the destructive patterns of behaviour that take root when people are young.
If we invest in people before it becomes too late – investing in our schools to close the gap between children from deprived homes and those who are better off.

Let’s start with where we are.
Britain isn’t fair.
There is profound inequality everywhere you look: how much people earn, the homes they live in, the schools they send their children to.

In a fair society there will be differences between people’s lifestyles, of course.
But your place in society won’t be decided for you; it will be up to you to decide for yourself.

That is a socially mobile Britain.
Some people say it is too much to hope for.
How can you move everyone upwards? There isn’t enough space at the top.
I say: that’s an excuse.
It is shrugging your shoulders at unfairness.
It is getting in the way of making Britain better.

Better than 23% of children living in poverty.
Better than millions of pensioners seeing out the winter in a single room because they can’t afford to heat their whole house.

Better than a baby born today in a poorer part of my city, Sheffield, dying on average 14 years before a baby born in a wealthier neighbourhood down the road.

We heard last month from the National Equality Panel that the richest 10% of people in Britain are now more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10%.

In 1997, when New Labour was first elected, no one would have believed it would end like this.
But Labour’s bright, shiny promise of a fair society has faded away.
And all that remains is disappointment, hardship, and – worst of all – hopelessness.

I travel around the country every week.
The people I meet are angry, they want more for their families and their neighbourhoods, they’re desperate for change.
But too many are no longer sure that’s possible.
It’s a completely understandable reaction, after 18 harsh years under the Conservatives, followed by let down after let down from Labour.

But that sense of powerlessness is dangerous.
It’s stops people demanding the Britain they want to live in.

Our big task now is giving people back their hope.
It’s something the Salvation Army does every day – with people who have problems with drink or drugs, women escaping violent relationships, prisoners coming to terms with their pasts.

It’s how you help people turn their lives around.
We’re only going to turn this country around if we do the same: make people believe it is possible.

For politicians, that means spelling out the big changes that really mean something to people.
The Liberal Democrats have laid out four steps to do that.
Four steps we can begin taking immediately to make a real difference to people’s lives:
Fair taxes, a rebalanced economy, decent, honest politics, and a good start for all of our children.
I’d like to take each in turn, but I’ll concentrate on the last one.
Because so long as opportunity is a privilege for some children but not others, any programme to tackle inequality is condemned to failure.

First, tax.
Our tax system is grossly unfair.
It’s a scandal that the poorest 20% of people in the country still lose a bigger chunk of their incomes to the tax man than the richest 20%.

That a millionaire still pays a lower rate of tax on his capital gains than his cleaner does on his or her wages.
The Liberal Democrats would close the loopholes exploited by big business and the very wealthy, giving everyone else a break.

Low and middle income earners wouldn’t pay a penny on the first £10,000 they earn. Giving most people £700 back every year, while 3.6 million pensioners and people on low incomes wouldn’t pay any tax at all.

Second, rebalancing our economy.
For decades successive governments made our whole economy subservient to a single square mile: the City of London.
So when our financial services collapsed, British taxpayers and businesses were left paying the price.
My party understands that there are nearly 100,000 square miles in Britain.
We want to usher in a new era where growth and jobs are spread across the nation.
By placing a new emphasis on infrastructure, on people, and on green technology…
I want to live in a country where we learn to build things again, not just place bets on computer screens in the City of London.

Third, politics must be opened up.
Made honest, decent, relevant.
That means getting rid of the influence of big money that is contaminating our political system.
Introducing fair votes so every vote counts.
And empowering every member of our society, bar none, starting with giving people the right to sack badly behaved MPs.

Finally, fairness for our children.

Education is everything when it comes to opportunity.
How self assured we are, how equipped we are to deal with adult life, depends very much on the experiences we had when we were young.

And, when it’s done right, education can be society’s greatest liberator.
Because how well you do depends on how hard you work, and nothing else.

But Britain’s education system is failing too many children.
Despite the dedication of good schools and great teachers, one in three 11 year olds leave school unable to read and write properly.

And nearly half of 16 year olds leave school without 5 good GCSEs.

And it is the worst off children who are being let down most.
By the time children start their formal education the language skills of the poorest already trail nearly a year behind those of the children from middle income homes.

By age 7 a bright but poor child will have been overtaken by his or her better off classmates.
By age 16 poorer teenagers are only half as likely to get 5 good GCSEs as everyone else.
That means less chance of further training, less chance of a good job, less chance of a stable life.

So what can we do?

Helping our schools make sure no child falls behind is half the answer.
And I will come on to how the Liberal Democrats would do that in a moment.

But schools can only do so much.
Because a good education doesn’t end at the school gate.
Every good parent knows that their children can only flourish if they are also taught the right values, given the right support, at home.

If they are read to when their young, if someone checks their homework, if they are encouraged to ask question after question.

For most parents providing that support is a natural reflex.
Life is hard for many working families.
But I meet plenty of mothers and fathers who work punishing hours and still find the time for their children’s education.

But, sadly, there are those who don’t.
A small minority of parents who do not see their children’s education as part of their duties as parents.
Who drop their children off in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon, and think that’s their job done.

Most probably their parents were the same with them.
But these are different times.
We now know, beyond any question, that, when it comes to a child’s development, what happens in the home is just as important – if not more – than what happens in the classroom.

That’s why, for example, children who are read to every day achieve better results.

When you deny a child that support, you hold them back.
Having a child is the greatest gift.
But it is a gift that carries duties.
You hold their life’s fortunes in your hands.
When you let them down, you limit their chances.
And, you limit the chances of other children too.

Because when your children fall behind…
When they lack self-confidence…
When they don’t place any value on education…
They’ll play up, and they’ll cause problems for everyone else.

We all remember from our own school days:
The pupils sat at the back of the class, disinterested, disengaged, disruptive.
Bored, having lost interest in a lesson they don’t understand; on the look out for other ways to entertain themselves.
Teachers try commendably to help those children, but the bad behaviour spirals.
Maybe they play truant, maybe they become bullies …
Maybe they never catch up, growing up into the lost young men and women organisations like the Salvation Army so often have to help.

The knock on effect is that while teachers are busy trying to get those pupils to toe the line, there’s less time for everyone else, and all of the pupils suffer.

I’m a parent – I don’t imagine every classroom can be full of rows of perfectly behaved little angels.
But I don’t accept that a handful of parents who aren’t doing their job properly should be able to hold back the whole class.

So the Liberal Democrats in government would make a deal with parents:
You look after your children’s education at home…
And we will make sure they get the best start possible at school.
So on days like today, national offer day, you can rest assured that your children will move from a great primary school to a great secondary school.

I’m a liberal.
I don’t believe in the passive assumption that only government can – or should – fix the problems in our society.
Yes, there are huge flaws in our education system that will not be resolved without intervention by the state.
But governments can only make a difference if parents do their bit too.

For our part, the Liberal Democrats will make lifting the standard of education in this country an absolute priority.
We have pledged an extra £2.5bn to our schools.
Head teachers will be able to use that money on a whole range of measures to help pupils.
From recruiting the best teachers in the toughest schools, to providing lessons outside of the normal school day, to more catch up classes, more one to one tuition, and head teachers will be able to cut class sizes too.

The money will be targeted specifically to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier classmates.

That is how we can tackle the inequality that blights our education system…
Which, as a report on social mobility I commissioned from Barnardo’s Chief Executive Martin Narey confirmed, is how we tackle the inequality that blights our society.

The extra investment helps not only the poorest children, but all of their classmates too.
An average primary school could see an extra £90,000 in its budget.
Enough to cut class sizes from 27 to 20.
In an average secondary school, they could go down to 16.
That’s good for every child in the class.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies is publishing their analysis of this type of investment tomorrow, which I look forward to reading.

That is important work in moving this debate forward among policy makers.
But many parents will feel they don’t need a report to tell them what they already know:
That any measure which gives teachers more time with their child, and more time bringing into line the children who would otherwise be playing up, can only be a good thing.

Ask teachers too – I was at a primary school in Brent just a few weeks ago…
The teachers I spoke to don’t just want to supervise a room full of children.
They want to teach.

The Government did, to their credit, pass a law to cap classes for 5-7 year olds.
But more than 8000 children are still in classes that are technically illegal.
A problem that, with the number of 5-7 year olds rising every year, is only going to get worse.

The evidence is clear:
Whilst smaller class sizes are not a panacea on their own, and whilst the effect of teaching children in smaller groups is less as children get older…

They can nonetheless have a dramatic effect on the educational performance of the youngest children.
And we all know that what happens in the first few years of a child’s time at school is of disproportionate importance to their subsequent life chances.

So providing smaller class sizes, especially for young children, is one of the most important changes our Pupil Premium will allow head teachers to introduce in their schools.

Ask yourself this:

Why does Switzerland, which consistently tops the literacy tables, have some of the smallest primary school classes in the world?

Why are more than 60% of the poorest pupils in Rutland not getting any GCSEs higher than a D – where the average secondary school class contains 24 pupils…

While in Westminster, where the average class is only 19, do less than 20% of the poorest children achieve the same result?

And why do the best off families pay vast sums every term to send their children to private schools where classes are around half the size of state schools?

Because they know that pupils will pay more attention to teachers, there will be less disruption…
And more opportunity to identify individual pupils’ problems, and talents, as they emerge.

Under our plans smaller classes won’t be a privilege reserved for the rich.
Our Pupil Premium raises the funding per pupil, for the poorer children, to the same levels as the money spent per pupil in private schools.

Head teachers can use that money to have smaller classes, like in fee paying schools. Taking our poorest children a huge leap towards an education they would otherwise never be able to afford.

So education is at the very core of what the Liberal Democrats will be proposing to voters at this election.
We are now the only true party of education.

Labour, despite all the money it has put into schools, has failed to transform the life chances of thousands of children who need the most help.

The Conservatives parrot the language of school reform – but refuse to allocate a single penny to make their promises a reality.

We are spelling out exactly what we would do, how much it would cost, and how we would pay for it.
And we are asking parents to enter into a deal with us:
Your child’s education will be our number one priority;
Help us by making it your number one priority too.

The difference smaller class sizes can make is so important that our Pupil Premium is one of only two substantial and immediate proposals for new investment the Liberal Democrats are making at this election.

The other being a major investment programme in green infrastructure to create jobs and boost the economy.

The public finances continue to bear the strain of the economic crisis.
But we can find the money if we are prepared to take tough decisions about what the country can and cannot now afford.

My party has, for example, identified money that can be saved by taking above-average earners out of the means-tested tax credit system.

By scrapping unnecessary government databases, like the Contact Point children’s database.
And by cutting the vast sums currently spent on central government, including halving the size of the Children Schools and Families Whitehall department…

As well as scaling back BECTA, the quango that tells schools which computers to buy.
These and other savings can be used to reduce our national deficit while we simultaneously invest in our priorities…
Like tackling the impact of disadvantage on a person’s life chances.

The Conservatives have also promised to target funding towards disadvantaged pupils.
But they have not given any detail on how they will pay for it.
In fact, they have committed precisely no pounds and no pence.
It is, in my view, the height of cynicism to pledge a pupil premium – by definition an amount of money per pupil – without attaching a figure to it.

It is playing games with people’s hopes to dangle the promise of extra money for children in front of parents with no evidence you can come good on it.

If they are planning to increase investment for disadvantaged pupils, they owe it to people to come clean about what they will cut to pay for it.

If they are planning simply to shift around existing school budgets, they owe it to schools to come clean on which ones are going to face cuts.

What we do know about the Conservatives is that they are going to cut funding for school buildings.
We can only assume – given they have talked about ringfencing the NHS, but have stayed quiet on education budgets – that they are going to cut those budgets overall.

So in the absence of any evidence that they will actually help the poorest children…
One thing we can be sure of is that their promise of ‘brazen elitism’ in our schools is bound to come true.

For the Liberal Democrats, education is at the heart of our vision for fairness.
I want us to get to people before they get to the organisations in this room.

Uprooting the inequality that is embedded in our schools won’t solve every problem.
But it will start to give every child a chance in life, irrespective of the circumstances of their birth.
It will mean that underachievement, low self-esteem, a lack of self confidence in the classroom, won’t blight a child’s education as widely as they do now.

I don’t want to live in a society where it is all too easy to predict in a maternity ward which children will do well and which children won’t.

I want to live in a society where every child has a chance.

I want to live in a fairer Britain.

Thank you.

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  • Anthony Aloysius St 2nd Mar '10 - 12:55am

    “An average primary school could see an extra £90,000 in its budget. Enough to cut class sizes from 27 to 20.
    In an average secondary school, they could go down to 16.”

    The BBC adds more detail on the costings:
    “In an average secondary school, with 1,000 pupils it could mean an extra £400,000 every year. This could be used to recruit 12 extra teachers and cut class sizes to 16, or it could be used to pay for catch-up help for 160 pupils.”

    As discussed elsewhere, these figures just don’t add up. According to the most recent figures from, the average secondary class size is 21, and the teacher:pupil ration is 16.1, That means about 62 teachers in Clegg’s average secondary, and an additional _19_ (not 12) teachers required to reduce average class size to 16.

    And on top of the salary costs there would be the enormous capital expenditure involved in increasing the number of classrooms by more than 30%, and no doubt a lot of other cost implications that are being ignored.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Mar '10 - 11:04am

    “So the Liberal Democrats in government would make a deal with parents:
    You look after your children’s education at home…
    And we will make sure they get the best start possible at school.”

    Sounds great – I don’t understand the ‘deal’ part, though. What happens if parents don’t hold up their end of it? (Quite apart from whether they have to sign up to it in the first place if they want in.) Or is it just the usual pious political cant that assumes that all soldiers are brave, all families are hard-working, and all parents are trying to do the best for their children? (I know. Stupid question.)

  • Anthony Aloysius St 2nd Mar '10 - 11:10am

    When this was discussed previously I assumed a last-minute mistake had been made in producing the illustrative figures on class sizes for a press release. It’s depressing to see them repeated in a speech by Nick Clegg.

    It does nothing for the standard of political debate to make unrealistic claims about dramatic improvements in public services at a relatively tiny cost.

    Over the last decade education spending has risen by more than 50% in real terms. During that time average class sizes have fallen from 27 to 26 in primary schools and from 22 to 21 in secondary schools. No one is going to believe that an extra 3% of funding could reduce these figures to 20 and 16 respectively.

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