Thank you very much for inviting me to address your conference. It’s a great pleasure to be here and to see quite a lot of familiar faces. You probably heard me speak recently at other events, I recognise quite a few people here.
Can I begin by saying a huge thank you to Anand and the Daycare Trust for all the work you have done in supporting policy development over the last twelve to eighteen months. We’re hugely grateful for your input on many areas and we really do appreciate it. Some very expert, very specific, and we’re very grateful to you for the time you make to do that with us.
The everyday practice of what happens in early years and childcare settings transforms and changes lives. Now I’m going to pause and say it again. The everyday practice of what happens in childcare and early years settings transforms and changes lives.
Now if you’re here and you work face to face with children you will know that, because you will know that on a day-to-day basis you will have that privilege of watching children grow before your eyes, and develop and change with the input you give. You know that that is true.
And if you’re a policy-maker, who works behind the scenes in early years, you also know what happens really does set the future for our country. Because there is no other time that children grow as quickly, or develop as fast, or learn as much in a way that at no other stage in our lives, as we grow up, as we become adults, there’s no other time when we absorb as much information as in those first few years.
So the foundation, if you like what you do, is that foundation on which everything else is built. You build, for the long-term. Your work is not short-term. It’s measured in its impact in years, sometimes decades. Not in months, not in weeks. Many other areas in policy-making, you see those impacts very quickly. But in this area it takes a long, long time before that work is really seen, and before we can actually see whether or not we’ve made good decisions and the right decisions.
Now I know, because I’ve met some of you before, and because many of you have spoken with my officials, I know that for some of you at the moment it’s an anxious time. There’s a lot of changes. Local authorities’ budgets are, in many areas, very tight. They are changing the way in which they’re developing things on the ground.
And there are huge changes also in the NHS. And for some of you that’s a very anxious time indeed. However, although those changes might apparently bring many threats, I think they bring many opportunities as well.
Now I’m speaking almost in the graveyard slot at 3pm and I imagine you’ve had presentations all day. You will have heard probably all day about the challenges. But I want to persuade you that there are enormous opportunities too. But they’re not short-term.
They’re about building for the long-term. And a lot of what we’re trying to do is, again, just as the same way in which the work that you do is about long-term, it’s similarly about building for the longer term.
And if we’re going to get that right, I’m going to need your help in making sure we get the detail right. I want just to say a few key areas where I’d really appreciate your input to make sure that we actually get that right for the longer term.
Now the first of those is about a consultation I launched just over a week ago. Some of you may have seen the press coverage, some of you may already have been contacted about it, or seen information on the Department’s website. Let me just recap about that consultation.
It’s a consultation about the free entitlement. The Government announced just over a year ago that in addition to extending the early years entitlement for three- and four-year-olds to 15 hours, that we’d offer 15 hours of early years education to all disadvantaged two-year-olds.
We are providing substantial additional investment, £380 million by the end of the Comprehensive Spending Review period, in order to make sure that we can do that.
Furthermore, we are legislating to make sure that it is a free entitlement - that has gone into the first two clauses of the Education Bill that’s just finishing up in the House of Lords at the moment*.
But the question then is about how we distribute that, and how we make sure it really gets to the two-year-olds who need it. How we make sure they take up that offer, and how we make sure we get the quality of that right so that it’s really making the difference on the ground.
It’s all very well just providing it, but we know that particularly disadvantaged two-year-olds, are most particularly sensitive to the quality of that offer. So that’s what the consultation is about.
And what we’re proposing is that families who would meet the criteria for free school meals should benefit, along with all looked after children. But we also want to give local authorities the discretion to offer it to disabled children or children with special educational needs as well. Now that’s something, again, I’d very much like your views on about how to make sure that works.
We’re also consulting on a basket of new measures for measuring quality - to define the criteria by which providers will be eligible to take up that offer. And we published the number of eligible two-year-olds that we expect, for each local authority, by 2013. And that’s really to help local authorities begin to plan.
And I think in some areas, the numbers will be probably substantially larger than they were perhaps expecting. We hope that they will use this next 12 months to begin to plan an increase in capacity.
We’re also changing the way in which local authorities have to respond and publish information about sufficiency of childcare in their area. And we hope that what we are proposing is much more sensible.
Previously, local authorities were required to do a very bureaucratic assessment once every three years. But I don’t think any parent was ever able to use that information in a way that was useful. And I don’t think members on local authorities were really able to get at that information to scrutinise it and make sure that local authorities were actually providing childcare in a way that was useful.
In addition to that, we are also requiring local authorities, as part of a new annual report, to make sure they look specifically at the needs of disabled children as well. I’m also the minister responsible for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and it’s an issue that is very dear to my heart indeed. And we’re very determined that we try and get this issue right.
So I say to you, whether or not you work in a local authority, or whether or not you work on the frontline with children, please read the consultation and tell us what you think about it.
Have we got the balance right, for example on the extra flexibility we’re trying to offer on the free entitlement. We’re suggesting that we might be able to offer that over two days rather than three days, with slightly longer hours. Have we got that balance right between the flexibility the parents want, and the need to prioritise child development.
Look at it and tell us what you think. What’s your local authority doing to try to increase the number of places for two-year-olds? We’d really like to hear your examples.
There are some fantastic examples that we’ve already seen from the pilots coming through. Tower Hamlets, despite having very cramped conditions, they’re really working well to increase the amount of capacity in their early years settings.
I think you were hearing from Sutton and Merton at some point today, and similarly I know that they’re doing fantastic work in their area, again on capacity. And outside of London, Gloucestershire - really interesting work on increasing capacity.
Second issue I want to raise with you is also about the workforce. This is really in response to things that many of you have said when I’ve spoken at previous conferences, and that many of you have also raised when we worked on the Families in the Foundation Years paper which we published earlier in the summer.
Consistently people said to me, actually we need to think about the quality of the workforce and the training regime and the qualifications.
Now, we know that the quality is substantially rising. And indeed the numbers of people working in childcare settings is also going up quite substantially - by 25% since 2006. As a Government, we are committed to continuing to fund graduate leader programmes like the Early Years Professional Status. But I’m also very aware that I think we need to do more to think about rigour and quality of training. So I say to you, what more can we do in that area?
I’ve just appointed Professor Cathy Nutbrown to lead a review of workforce qualifications - and Cathy is incredibly keen to hear from you and to hear about your experience, particularly if you’ve been through the training, or are responsible for managing training for other people.
We’d like to hear what your views are. This is really about planning for the long-term. These are not changes that are going to be brought out in the next few months, there’s a call for evidence happening now.
But this is about planning for the next decade - these are long-term changes which we need your experience and your ability to look to the future now to make sure that we actually get that right.
There will be lots of opportunities for you to do that and not just in writing. I do hope the Daycare Trust might be willing to host some workshops for us, for example, to gather evidence from many of you on what you think and feel about Cathy’s review.
And the third area is around children’s centre reform and wider support for families. We have 26 areas now involved in piloting payment by results to try to move our thinking on - away from inputs and just measuring the number of children that go through centres, to make sure we’re actually measuring outcomes and really being tested about what difference we’re making to children and to families lives.
We’re also setting up 16 Sure Start children’s centres teaching centres. And they’re based on the idea that some of you may have heard discussed in the Schools White Paper, that we have teaching schools - centres of excellence that really pioneer best practice and bring in all of that quality and share information.
Three areas around the country are going to be piloting universal parenting classes for under 5s and we’re working very closely with the Department of Health - as they’re recruiting substantially more health visitors. I’m trying to make sure that work is really linked in with children’s centres on the ground.
So I think no matter where you’re based, you’re probably quite close to somebody who is doing quite significant change and trialling something new in terms of the way in which we’re working with children’s centres.
And I’m very keen to get views from the ground up about how, for example, we might involve parents better in shaping services, and making sure those services are really focused around what parents need and want in the area.
Later this year we’ll be consulting on a shorter, punchier version of the statutory guidance, which will be clearer on the must dos and the should dos. So that everyone is clearer about what flexibilities they have, and are able to be, I hope, more creative on the ground.
Now if you’re based in a children’s centre, or in a local authority, or another childcare setting that works closely with a Sure Start children’s centre, then please do get involved in this type of work.
There are some fantastic examples on the ground of really creative practice. I’ve seen some really good examples. In fact in the last 10 days, I went to Hull and saw some very good examples of information sharing between health and children’s services. Very innovative work that I think many other areas could learn from.
So if you have any examples like that, please make sure they’re fed through and people here about the good work that you do. There are lots of other things coming down the tracks, for example, the EYFS.
We will be consulting again on that later in the year. We’ve responded very much to what many of you said - we’ve kept the core but made it slimmer. We hope it will drive up quality but we will need to consult again because we’re going through now the responses that many of you gave, to make sure we’re actually responding to what you said.
So there is a lot more coming down the tracks and lots of things which I hope you will be involved in.
As a minister, when I visit local areas and see services on the ground, you tell me two things. You tell me that first of all, it is very challenging at the moment. But you also tell me that you’re absolutely determined, no matter what the circumstances, we see substantial improvements and that we see genuine increases in quality for the children that we serve.
And I think, probably because I’m a minister, when I go round, most of you show me the thing you’re most proud of. Rather than you’re main worries - though I certainly hear about your worries as well. Though sometimes it feels as though I’m the only person who gets to see the thing that you’re most proud of.
And I wonder whether or not, next door, the children’s centre or the local authority or the nursery actually gets to see that fantastic example of creative practice that you do. Or whether or not that information just comes into the Department and goes somewhere on my list of examples of best practice.
I say to you, my take home message - I’m sure that all of you will be doing something which is really changing the way in which you work. You’ll be doing something really interesting in your area. Please make sure that you’ve told your neighbour, or somebody on another table about what that is.
Because if we’re going to genuinely change practice and genuinely drive up quality, yes it will take leadership from me, yes it will take leadership from Government, but actually mostly it will take leadership from you. Because you’re the people who are actually doing the work on the ground.
Thank you very much.
- The Bill is now an Act having received Royal Assent.