Education Secretary Gillian Keegan yesterday addressed the Local Government Association.
Thank you, Kevin.
It is a great pleasure to be here to address the LGA conference for the first time.
I know how important the work, and the voice, of local government is.
My first step into public life after a long business career was as a local councillor where I was also trained by the LGA.
And now as an MP, a Minister, a Secretary of State, I see every day the hard work that councils up and down this country do.
I often get asked what a “good” or a “great” start in life is for children and that looks like.
Every child, every family, is different. But to me, there is a common thread.
Every child needs stability plus parents or carers around them that are fully engaged, so that they can grow, they can learn, and they can thrive.
This is something that we all worry about, how can we make sure that all children get the stability they need to set them up for life?
You are often the first line of defence for children in your area and I want you to know that I know how vital your role is.
What you do changes lives. You can’t ever be thanked enough for this.
I want you to know that I am right behind you in your efforts.
It is not lost on me that I am addressing you today while children and young people in schools across the country face disruption from industrial action.
This disruption is undermining the stability we have been working so hard to recover after the pandemic.
Let me be clear, we should not be having these strikes. In general, but certainly not now.
Children have been through so much in the pandemic; I can’t think of a worst time to be willingly keeping them out of school.
And we know that it’s critical to ensure children spend as much time in school as possible.
Because we know that time spent in school is time well spent. School provides stability, it provides education, it provides support, it provides community.
But there are significantly more children missing school than before the pandemic.
Sadly, tragically, too many children are not attending school regularly, are persistently absent or, are missing education altogether.
Some have labelled these “ghost children” – but I don’t like that label – they are real children, and their potential is being cut short.
I’m determined we fix this, and I am grateful for the work you have already done with schools and families to ensure that they and their children get the right support.
We are clear that the system needs to work together to improve attendance, focusing on a “support-first” approach.
When we can we will put these new expectations on a statutory footing. Because this really matters.
In the meantime, we continue to support you in your efforts.
Our new data tool means you can respond quickly to trends in near real time, our attendance advisers are already working with around 115 local authorities, and our Attendance Action Alliance, which I chair, and which includes the Children’s Commissioner, the President of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Children’s Mental Health lead from NHS England. Championing good attendance is top of our agenda.
I’m delighted to say that bit by bit, little by little, our approach is working.
And this is critical in the next few months as we know that children who miss the first few days of the new term, without good reason, are much more likely to miss long periods of their schooling than their peers.
This is a critical period, but it is also an opportunity.
By September we want to be welcoming as many children back to school as possible.
I believe, truly, that not only can we get this right, but that working together, we will get this right.
By supporting children, and families, to get kids into school, to get them learning.
To get them the support they need, and the stability the deserve.
Of course, there are children who face bigger challenges than others.
When you look at vulnerable children, whether it’s because of their home life, a disability, or a previous experience, it’s often the same children, who are being counted and treated as vulnerable in three, four, five different systems.
Nearly half of our children in need also have special educational needs, as do 57% of children who were looked after for at least 12 months.
Those children, they are just as smart and have just as much potential as their peers. The only difference is that they got dealt a tougher hand in life.
We all know that they need the support, the stability, and the help that will allow them to reach their potential.
The reality is that for children with more complex needs, support often takes too long to arrive - and when it does – it is not always of the quality or consistency that they deserve.
Families have to jump through hoops to get their children what they need, and providers and services are under increasing pressure to deliver.
That’s why we’re investing, doubling high needs funding in the past four years, so that it now stands at a record £10 billion, and putting £2.6 billion into special and alternative provision school places.
But it’s not just about funding. It’s about how we use this and that’s why our SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement plan outlines a mission to transform the system so that all children, whatever their needs, can fulfil their potential.
These children face many challenges, not just one. This creates more need for support, even though they have less to draw on.
That is why we are working with you to deliver consistent high-quality support, providing more social workers, more educational psychologists, and more support staff.
We are going to deliver new national standards and practice guides, that will not only show what excellence looks like, but will provide a benchmark of support that every child with special needs can expect.
We will set out clear roles and responsibilities across the system and end the bureaucratic battle that prevents families and children getting the support they need.
A standardised EHCP template and national digital requirements will mean families can get the support your teams and partners provide, more simply and quicker.
We will work with you, and with families, to develop and test these resources over the coming months.
We will also announce details of how we will work together on testing our reforms through our Change Programme and the establishment of new Regional Expert Partnerships.
So the good news is, we are definitely going in the right direction.
But there will always be more to do, and I’m so grateful for your support on this journey.
That brings me to the second area of partnership I want to speak about – and that’s our work together supporting families.
You may well have heard the Prime Minister speak about how central family is to our vision of the future.
But it’s hard for young families to balance both their children’s education and their own careers, especially with financial challenges and especially in the early years.
Parents in 2022 were paying nearly 6% more for childcare for under 2s and 6.4% more for 2-year-olds than they were the previous year.
This is why the Chancellor pledged the single biggest investment in childcare this country has ever seen, and why by 2028 we will have doubled spending on childcare with more than £8 billion every year on early years education. But I know you need extra support to deliver this.
I know you want precise figures, and I’m pleased to say we’ll be confirming funding allocations for each local authority later this week.
We have also announced £289m of investment to help you set up and deliver wraparound childcare, available from next year. And we’ll be seeking your views on how we make this scheme work effectively.
This investment will make a real difference to families up and down the country, so that they can balance their lives and support their children.
This is the support I would like every child to have. But the reality is, family life is often complex. Sometimes there are challenges, and families need extra support.
In February this year, we set out how we will provide this and ensure children are kept safe and stay happy.
We called it ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’, because love and stability are what every child craves and what they deserve.
Our strategy sets out how we will work with families to help them manage challenges.
We’ll shortly be announcing which local areas will participate in the first wave of our Families First for Children pathfinder.
These areas will provide a vision of the future system, supporting families through new Family Help services and an expert child protection response, to ensure frontline workers have the knowledge and expertise to support children and their families. Where children need protection, we will ensure that services, we will give staff the skills and support to take decisive action.
Where children cannot stay with their parents, we should look first at wider family networks and support them and care for the child.
And, where a child needs to enter the care system we will provide the same foundation of love, stability, and safety.
There are 82,000 children in care. They are in our family, they are in our care, and we owe it to them to ask ourselves everyday – are we doing the best we can?
We must always be ambitious for children in care and care leavers and I’m proud of what we’re doing in Government to help these children thrive and achieve their potential in adulthood.
One of my most rewarding parts of this job is seeing this first-hand and chairing our cross-government Care Leavers board.
And I am proud to work in a Government that care so deeply about this and it is great to be working with my colleague Johnny Mercer who is working on taking the lessons we have learnt about supporting veterans, and joining-up support for care leavers in the same way.
We have increased the leaving care allowance from £2,000 to £3,000 and have consulted on expanding our corporate parenting responsibilities, so that more public bodies provide the right support to care leavers and also businesses.
These young people need support when they start out on their own. Our Staying Close and Staying Put programmes will enable young people to stay with their foster carers or close to their children’s homes when they leave care.
Working together is a huge part of the making sure that all children get the future they deserve.
I have seen this myself whether through Family Hubs and Start for Life, working with 87 councils in England; or the Supporting Families programme which has helped over 650,000 families already.
When we get it right, and work together, it leads to incredible outcomes.
Let me take fostering for example.
I know first-hand the role foster carers play because many of my aunties fostered children.
I have also been privileged to meet plenty of inspiring people who open their homes and their hearts to children.
People like Marites. Marites is a dedicated foster carer – like many other across the country.
She told me about one of the children she fostered. A seven-year-old boy.
When he first arrived with her, he didn’t say a word. In fact, he didn’t speak for weeks. They didn’t know what he had gone through in his short life, but his silence spoke volumes.
But Marites never gave up in the time she supported him. She gave this silent little boy the love and care he needed and slowly he began to recover.
Years passed and then by chance she caught up with him walking through her borough. Her silent little boy was now the mayor.
What a story, and what a life changed because one person took a chance on one child.
You will all have had similar rewarding stories.
Our job is to make sure every child gets the stability and foundation in life they deserve.
A child, wherever they are, should be able to feel safe with unconditional love. They should be supported so that they know anything is possible.
I know we ask a huge amount of you; I know that you wrestle with difficult decisions and pressures every day.
But let’s just think about the prize. Together, we can create a world where all children, regardless of where they come from, can get the start in life they really deserve.
Where it truly doesn’t matter where you came from, only where you are going.
Together, we have started to make that future possible. But there is a lot more work to do.
Work we must do. Because those children deserve nothing less.
For me and many of your I know this is personal and I know we’re doing this for the right reasons, and together we can change lives.
And I promise you, when we see those children grow up, thrive, and deliver that same love and support to their own families.
We will know that all of the effort we have put in will have been worth it.
Indeed, it may be the best thing we ever do.