I’m sure you all watched with interest the Chancellor’s Spending Review announcement on Wednesday. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk frankly about what the Spending Review means for the early learning and childcare sector.
I know that many of you will be understandably anxious about how the government’s savings will impact on the early years. I hope this week’s announcement has allayed some of those concerns. The Spending Review inevitably involved some very difficult decisions, but in making savings the Government has done everything we can to protect frontline services, help the most disadvantaged and accelerate social mobility.
Supporting families and the most vulnerable in our society is at the heart of our vision for transforming early education. We know that high-quality, accessible early education is vital so we can give every child the foundation they need to succeed and parents can balance work and family life.
That’s why the Deputy Prime Minister last week confirmed that we have protected funding for free nursery education for 3- and 4-year-olds - and a new fairness fund will include £300 million to extend 15 hours per week of free education to all disadvantaged 2-year-olds.
Investing in young children is investing in the long term. We know from research that the gap in achievement begins as early as 22 months - disadvantaged children begin to fall behind and are overtaken by children from more affluent backgrounds. The fairness fund will offer more help at an earlier age to the most disadvantaged children and will mean we can directly tackle the gaps in attainment that open up in the critical early years of life.
I want to make sure we give every child a fair start in life and Sure Start centres are in a unique position to help us achieve this. The Chancellor confirmed in the Spending Review that Sure Start funding will be protected in cash terms, including investment in health visitors. However, even at this level, with greater numbers of children coming through and other grants coming to an end, I realise that this will feel tough. So while there is funding to keep the network of Sure Start centres as a universal service, local authorities and children’s centres will need to work together to make savings and think more innovatively about how they use their resources.
In doing so the focus must now be on how we can enable Sure Start centres, working with other professionals, to better target those most in need of their services. We want to see children’s centres intervening earlier and taking a much more innovative approach.
This means focusing on services that really work, and involving organisations who have a track record of supporting families effectively. We also want to see a much stronger partnership with local communities and voluntary organisations, so that all children’s centres become hubs of Big Society - a place for parents of all backgrounds to meet and share experiences, build their confidence and get involved in their local community.
Much of what the Chancellor set out in the Spending Review involves us all thinking in a radically different way about how services are delivered at a local level. By removing ring fences on funding and the creation of a new Early Intervention grant, we are giving local authorities more flexibility and freedom over how they design services that truly meet the needs of the communities they serve.
We know there are difficult times ahead, but I want you to be reassured that the Spending Review shows that the Government remains firmly committed to giving our children and families the services, help and support they need to thrive. Families are the bedrock of a strong and stable society, and getting things right early on makes sense in the long term - for Government, families and the wider community.