A world-class system

We all know how important a child's first years are, but increasingly research is showing the full impact of those early experiences on our education and later lives.

So that, if you're a child born into a poor family in Britain, you will have already fallen behind a child from richer parents by the time you're two years old.

It has absolutely nothing to do with your talent or potential, just your background, and that gap will get bigger unless action is taken. We all have a responsibility to ensure that no child is written off so early. Especially when we can do something about it.

The statistics show that good early years education improves children's literacy skills, behaviour and concentration - helping to boost their exam results and earning potential in later life.

That's why I, and my party, have made increasing access to affordable, high-quality early years education one of our biggest priorities in Government.

So, despite the tough economic climate, we increased the hours of funded early years education available for every family with a three- and four-year-old from 12.5 to 15 hours a week.

We then extended this offer to low-income families with a two-year-old, making it available to 260,000 more children.

We also created the £50m Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP), giving providers an extra £300 per eligible child to offer more support to the children who need it.

In total we've increased Government's investment in childcare by more than £1bn to £6bn a year and my party is committed to protecting education funding - including early years, schools and 16-19 education - in the next Parliament.

However, I know that there are very real concerns across the early years education system that not enough of this money is reaching the frontline.

In Government, we've set the rates we pay local authorities at a higher level than the average hourly cost early years providers charge parents nationally. We don't want this money to go anywhere else, and we will continue to push local authorities to pass as much of it as possible to providers.

In fact, in my party, we're focused on investing even more in childcare. Our ambition is for every child to have access to high-quality pre-school education and for every working parent to get the childcare support they need: creating a world-class early years education system.

So, in the next Parliament, we will start by providing 15 hours a week of free early years education to every family with a two-year-old - saving families new to this offer the equivalent of £2,540 a year, on average.

Critically, we will also make 15 hours of free early years education available to all working parents from the end of their paid parental leave at nine months right through until their child is two and the existing provision begins - saving working parents the equivalent of £2,670 a year.

And our long-term ambition is to boost the free childcare offer from 15 to 20 hours a week across the board.

We will also give extra support to those families who need childcare in addition to these funded hours. From autumn 2015 we'll be introducing tax-free childcare, which will top up every 80p a parent spends on registered childcare with another 20p from the Government -giving parents support of up to £2,000 per child per year.

To qualify, parents will only have to earn just over the equivalent of £50 a week - regardless of your employer or even if you're self-employed. And for parents on low incomes who receive universal credit, we will invest an additional £350m to increase the contribution Government makes to childcare costs from 70 per cent to 85 per cent.

To help more disadvantaged children, we will also increase the EYPP from £300 to £1,000 per child, per year - delivering an EYPP that is higher pro rata than the primary school Pupil Premium.

Finally, all the research shows the incredible impact highly qualified staff can have on childhood development; and we have introduced new bursaries for early years apprentices, extended the Teach First scheme to early years and simplified the registration arrangements for new providers.

But we haven't gone far enough. The Liberal Democrats will ensure that every child in school is taught by a qualified teacher. I want to see those same high standards in the early years system too. It's my ambition that, by 2020, every childcare setting should have a member of staff who holds Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

To help us meet that goal, we will create clearer routes for early years professionals to obtain QTS and fair pay when you get there, incorporating and building on existing early years qualifications.

This is our plan for a world-class early years education system. Together, we're fighting for what's best for Britain's children and families - a more family-friendly country fit for our children to grow up in.

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