Nick Clegg: Education is at heart of liberal mission

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THE priority I want to focus on is education – because nothing is more central to creating both a stronger economy and a fairer society, where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Education has the power to liberate people from the circumstances of their birth. I want every child in Britain today, no matter what their background, to have the opportunity to be what they want to be. Because liberals treat people as individuals to be encouraged and enabled to flourish, not like numbers to be ranked and filed. And we want everyone to be able to flourish, not just the lucky few.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats are the party of education. The liberal mission is, and always has been, to tear down the barriers that stop people from being able to reach their potential. But the first barriers appear right at the start of a child’s life. If you fall behind in those crucial early years, the chances are you stay behind forever.

We know that, on average, a child who goes to a high quality pre-school will be better at reading or maths by the age of six than a classmate who does not.

We know that, as a teenager, that child’s concentration will be better in class and they will go on to do better in their GCSEs.

And we know they will earn thousands of pounds more throughout their working lives. If you remove those barriers, if you stop children falling behind, you can change their lives forever. That’s why education is my top priority and always has been. Nothing motivates me more.

More than 13 years ago, I visited a number of schools in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands and it was on those trips that the idea of the Pupil Premium first came to me. It was an idea designed to target resources at the most disadvantaged pupils in schools, to stop them from falling behind their classmates.

That idea became Liberal Democrat policy. That policy became a front page manifesto priority at the last election. And that priority became the centrepiece of a liberal agenda for education that we have pursued in Government.

Today the Pupil Premium is worth £2.5bn a year. It funds breakfast clubs, homework clubs, one-to-one tuition and much more. It helps schools to reach out to parents who would otherwise be disengaged.

And it is working. The latest figures found that primary school children from the poorest backgrounds achieved their best ever results and that the gap between them and their classmates had narrowed.

While the challenge is harder in secondary schools, this year we have seen the attainment gap in Maths and English narrow too. When we joined the coalition in 2010, education was at the top of our agenda and it has stayed there ever since.

While we haven’t always seen eye to eye with our coalition partners, we have been relentless in making sure the life chances of our children have been at the heart of the coalition’s programme.

We made sure the schools budget was protected in real terms every year. We made sure the Pupil Premium was given the priority and resources it needed to change lives, not just funded by cutting the schools budget elsewhere. We prioritised extra childcare funding for parents of two, three and four-year-olds, extended the Pupil Premium to support the poorest children before they start school and introduced healthy free lunches for all infants to help them learn.

In government in the next five years, we will once again put the life chances of our children at the heart of the government’s agenda.

We will protect not only the schools budget in real terms, but funding for early years and colleges too.

We will make sure that every child is taught by a qualified teacher.

We will triple the extra funding that goes to children from the poorest backgrounds in nursery.

And we will give every primary school child a hot, healthy lunch to help them learn.

The last few years have been tough for a lot of people, who have had to work hard and make real sacrifices to get by.

Politicians have had to make difficult choices with less money at our disposal. And there are more difficult choices to come. That’s why priorities matter.

The Liberal Democrats will prioritise education, just as we have done over the last five years, because nothing is more central to what we believe.