I’m sure you have heard the Lib Dem tagline “Stronger Economy Fairer Society” a multitude of times over the past few years. With the general election campaign well underway you are bound to hear it more. Since the difficult decision to enter the Coalition Government was made in 2010, we have worked hard to put into action many of the policies in our manifesto and I am proud to have delivered on these promises.
Our society can only be fairer if every person, irrespective of background and circumstance, is able to fulfil their potential. That's why I am working with my Lib Dem colleagues to give all children and young people the very best start in life.
A Record of Delivery & A Promise of More
Lib Dem policies have made a real positive difference to young people’s lives, from birth through to finding a job. Through the Children and Families Act we secured our flagship policy of shared parental leave. This will give the choice to parents how to divide their time and allow them to stay in work, giving their children the best possible start in life. Coupled with our extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, no longer will one parent have to take inordinate amounts of time off work, or leave their job completely, in order to fit in their family commitments. Thanks to Liberal Democrats in government, parents now have a choice about how they best provide for their children.
Childcare, and the associated costs, are a real worry for many families. We are taking action on this concern. We are providing 15 hours of free childcare per week for 2 year olds from low-income families, and all 3-4 year olds regardless of background. Through the Childcare Payments Act, passed in December, we have also introduced a new scheme that will provide up to £2000 per child per year to help families with the cost of childcare. Starting in the autumn, it will be available to 1.9 million working families with children under 12 by the end of its first year alone. In Bristol, 14,000 children are benefitting from free childcare and 11,500 families are set to receive help with childcare costs. However, we also want to go further and over the long-term we want to extend free childcare to all children between 9 and 24 months, before increasing the number of hours to 20 per week.
Furthermore, as the only current government minister who was eligible free school meals as a child, delivering on our pledge to provide free school meals to all infants is an achievement of which I am immensely proud. Well over 1.5 million children nationwide are now tucking in to free school meals daily, with 14,500 pupils benefitting in Bristol. Not only will this improve disadvantaged pupils’ learning and social skills, it will also close the attainment gap between them and their peers – all while saving families over £400 per year per child!
With £2.5bn of extra investment in primary and secondary schools, targeted at the poorest students through the Pupil Premium, we are also allowing schools to decide for themselves how best to help their pupils. Over £50m in extra funding has been allocated to Bristol schools since 2010. I have already seen for myself over the last few years that Bristol West schools are using the extra money for catch up lessons, one to one support and also for a range of activities outside of the classroom, to widen horizons and raise aspirations. We now have the first evidence that the policy is making a real difference to attainment. Throughout the next few months I’ll be meeting with head teachers and staff at many of the schools in my constituency to see first-hand how that money has been put to use, and to hear their views on how to improve the policy further.
These are promising steps towards improving social mobility in Bristol across the UK. Over the rest of this parliament and, I hope, the next I will continue to support measures that give pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds the help and support they need to fulfil their potential at school.