Nick Clegg has said £7bn will be spent over four years improving the education of England’s poorest children.
It will pay for 15 hours of free pre-school education a week for the poorest two-year-olds, and help for the least well-off at school and university.
The deputy PM said next week’s spending round would see “difficult cuts” but would also invest in “fairness”.
Labour’s Andy Burnham suggested Mr Clegg was trying to appease his own MPs after a difficult week on tuition fees.
Deputy Prime Minister – and Lib Dem leader – Mr Clegg is under pressure to show that he is fulfilling his party’s manifesto commitment on the pupil premium, amid continued anger from some of his back benchers over his u-turn on university tuition fees to fund higher education.
In a speech in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Mr Clegg said the “fairness premium” would deliver support for the most disadvantaged young people “from the age of two to the age of 20 – from a child’s first shoes to a young adult’s first suit”.
He said that although the government faced a “hard road” with next week’s spending round – which is expected to see departmental cuts of between 25% and 40% – it would “not compromise on a better future for the poorest children”.
“The right thing to do is improve the life chances of the poorest by investing in a fairness premium even as we cut spending in other areas. The right thing to do is to invest in the future, even if it makes it harder today.”
He added: “While next week’s comprehensive spending review will cut spending, it will increase our investment in fairness and in particular improving children’s life chance. It will be an investment package for future fairness.”
He explained that by the end of the four-year spending review period, money allocated to the pupil premium would rise to £2.5bn a year, about £300m would go towards early years support for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds and about £150m a year would be targeted at bright youngsters who might otherwise have been “intimidated or deterred” from going to university.
Those pupils entitled to free school meals would be taken as a starting point – those eligible will be offered 15 hours a week of free nursery education at two years old, on top of the 15 hours already available at ages three and four.
Details on how the government would define the poorest pupils, and how the “student premium” would work were still being worked out, he said.
Questioned after the speech he agreed the package would not be an “overnight solution” but said the government was introducing, over time, “radical measures which over time will allow children to live out their dreams”.
He dismissed suggestions he had raised it to calm his back benchers’ fears over tuition fees, adding: “I first wrote about the pupil premium a decade ago … I have been talking about this for years and years.”
Mr Clegg’s speech focussed on improving social mobility and life chances for those born into the poorest households and how government could help them “falling behind in these critical foundation years”.
In the coalition agreement between the Tories and Lib Dems, the parties agreed to “fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere”. The government has not confirmed how it will be funded.
The previous Labour government had invested £57m in free childcare pilot schemes for the 15% most disadvantaged two-years in some areas of England in 2009. It amounted to 10 hours a week free for at least 38 weeks a year.
Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham told the BBC: “We’ve got to apply a very, very hard test to Mr Clegg’s announcement today. It comes out of nowhere after a hard week for the Liberal Democrats.
“They’re saying that this pupil premium is their flagship commitment from the coalition agreement. They promised it would be funded from outside of the schools budget. I will be holding him to that. If he doesn’t demonstrate how this will be funded from outside of the school’s budget then I’m afraid it will be another hollow promise.”
And Chris Keates, head of the NASUWT teachers’ union, dismissed the measure as a “sop” to Liberal Democrat backbenchers which would “sink without trace” when wider spending cuts are announced next week.
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