Within its manifesto, launched today, the party has unveiled a raft of policies for children and young people.
They include extending the 15 hours of free childcare to all two-year-olds, and then prioritising the free entitlement for all working parents in England with children aged between nine months and two years.
The party would also commit to an 'ambitious long-term goal' of 30 hours free childcare for all two-four-year-olds, and all working parents from the end of paid parental leave to the age of two.
Other plans include tripling the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP) - which provides extra funding for early years settings for children from disadvantaged backgrounds - to £1,000 per pupil a year, up from £302 in 2015-16.
The Liberal Democrats say that this would pay for every disadvantaged child who took up their full entitlement to 570 hours a year of early education – i.e. the universal entitlement for three- and four-year-olds of 15 hours a week over 38 weeks.
The party also pledges to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils ‘as resources allow’ and promote school breakfast clubs.
This builds on the Lib Dems’ infant free school meals policy, which was brought in under the coalition government.
They say this will ensure that pupils have a healthy meal during the school day, improving their health and education, and saving parents money.
The manifesto will also include plans to reverse cuts to school and college budgets by protecting per pupil funding in real terms and introducing a fairer national funding system, to include protection so that no school loses out, the party says.
On apprenticeships, the Liberal Democrats are aiming to double the number of businesses taking on apprentices, expanding to sectors of the economy, such as creative and digital industries. As part of raising the number, and quality of apprenticeships, they say that they will ensure that all the receipts from the Apprenticeship Levy in England are spent on training, aiming to fund a wider range of types of training.
The Liberal Democrats have also said they would introduce a Father’s Month – an additional month of paid parental leave for fathers, to encourage greater sharing of parental responsibilities.
They say that the plans are fully costed in their manifesto.
Commenting on the proposed policies, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, 'Once again, we are presented with a manifesto making big promises on childcare, but providing little detail on how these policies will work in practice.
'We know that navigating the gap between the end of parental leave and the start of existing free entitlement schemes has long been raised as an issue by parents, and so understandably many will welcome Liberal Democrat plans to extend the free entitlement to all two-year-olds, and under-twos from working families.
'However, it remains unclear how the party intends to ensure that this pledge is ‘fully funded at sustainable levels’, as claimed in the manifesto. Given the tighter staff-child ratio requirements for younger children, and the additional costs associated with this, such a move would require a significant increase in early years investment.
'And of course, in the longer term, plans to eventually extend the 30-hour offer to all two- to four-year-olds would require even further spending in this area.
'The sector has been on the receiving end of enough underfunded ‘free childcare’ policies. Without more detail on how these pledges will be funded, many providers will remain rightly sceptical about these latest promises.'
The National Day Nurseries Association echoed the Alliance's concerns.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, 'While the Liberal Democrats set out some ambitious and worthwhile aims in their manifesto, there must be sufficient investment and strategic planning for these to be deliverable.
'In offering all two-year-olds 15 funded hours of childcare per week, the Liberal Democrats are committing to an expansion of the current system which is already struggling with underfunding.
'It is at least heartening that the Liberal Democrats acknowledge that any childcare promises to parents must be properly funded for nurseries to remain sustainable as businesses, but in committing to longer-term goals to provide ‘free’ childcare for all from nine months onwards, they are in danger of being overly ambitious.
'Any childcare pledge must be backed up by realistic investment and put together in consultation with the sector, particularly private day nurseries which deliver the lion’s share of funded hours, to ensure pledges can be delivered for parents without putting provision at risk.'