Sharon was invited to give a keynote speech to the Pre School Learning Alliance 50th anniversary conference at Hammersmith Novotel.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you Graham
It's a real pleasure to be here with you today and to be joining in your celebrations - both of the last 50 years of achievements as well as those individuals who were presented with awards for their work earlier on this morning.
The history of the Alliance is obviously known to you all - a letter of frustration from one mother which grew into a movement and an institution which now supports over three quarters of a million children and their families.
I count my children and my family among them.
I registered as a childminder around 15 years ago - my two children were young and, like many others who find themselves drawn to childminding, I wanted to work but I also wanted to spend as much time as possible watching my kids grow and develop.
I went to the Alliance for training to help me do that, and I learnt a great deal through the brilliant local courses on offer.
In the end, when I completed my training and registered as a childminder, another career opportunity was presented to me which I couldn't turn down - working for a great education charity in the North East, a path which ultimately led me to being here on this podium as an MP and Shadow Minister.
But having done those Alliance courses, I had no problem finding a childminder I knew I could trust while I pursued that career - she had been on the courses with me.
So I am personally grateful as a mother for the excellent resources that Alliance staff and volunteers provide and the positive impact that they have had on my life and the lives of my children.
As a politician and as Shadow Children and Families Minister I am also grateful for the work you have done over the years in driving the importance of the early years up the political agenda.
From the genesis of the Alliance - the nursery that Belle set up because she couldn't find her children a state-funded place - it has sought to improve the quality and availability of childcare for every family, but particularly the most vulnerable.
As Sue Owen says in the foreword to the book you brought out to mark this celebration year, many children in your playgroups don't have the chance to paint or be creative, or play with large toys with other children at home. So the development that can be seen when a child is brought in to an environment like a PSLA playgroup is phenomenal.
That's as true now as it was when your movement started.
Your success has not been due to just being a service which parents use, or a campaign group which says they are speaking on their behalf, but on being a service and a campaign that parents are actively involved in shaping and promoting.
You were doing the Big Society before the Prime Minister was even born.
And you have contributed significantly to some of the great things that government has achieved; the Children's Plan and your involvement in Children's Centres probably typify this the most.
But you have quite rightly been a critical friend - helping central and local government deliver the improvements they want to deliver, but at the same time highlighting concerns and lobbying where you believed that what they were doing was not going far enough to help families.
I'm sure the next 50 years will see your role as an advocate for children and a partner for government go from strength to strength.
I don't think in all your previous 50 years of existence, you will have seen quite as much focus on the early years as we have seen over the 15 years or so since I trained with you.
We have achieved a lot during those years - I'm sure I don't have to list every one of Labour's achievements between 97 and last year, but I am proud of the progress that we made.
And I hope that some progress can continue to be made while we're spending a few years out of power.
The Minister asked Frank Field and Graham Allen to produce reports around improving early years provision, and I think that there are a lot of positives that can be taken from those.
I understand Graham's second report is due out imminently, and I'll certainly be looking forward to that - Graham is a passionate campaigner for early education and intervention, and I hope that his ambitions are backed by Ministers.
Frank is similarly committed to tackling child poverty, and while I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything in his report - for example, I think material poverty is still worth addressing - it has provided a lot of food for thought for both the Government and us.
Dame Clare Tickell has evaluated the Foundation Stage curriculum and made what I am sure we would all see as reasonable refinements of a framework which is starting to show real signs of success.
The Foundation Stage is an important plank in ensuring that children in whatever setting their parents choose get the same high level of care and support to develop.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the proportion of settings being rated as good or outstanding is the highest it's ever been - but it can always be higher.
And we're expecting an early years policy statement from the government in the Autumn, which will apparently be "co-produced" by sector specialists, including - I believe - your very own Chief Executive, who will be co-chairing the group.
I'm hoping to try and get some insider gossip from Neil over lunch.
It will certainly be interesting to see just how much influence the group will have over the final statement. Hopefully, lots - although I think if we see the term ‘school readiness' peppered through it then we can probably conclude that it wasn't very much at all.
Despite that focus on policy, you will know as well as I do that there are huge practical problems in the pipeline, and in some cases already here.
The new Early Intervention Grant - with its reduced funding and its lack of ringfencing - means that early years providers up and down the country, whether public, private or voluntary, are facing significant pressure.
Some local authorities are getting 25% less funding this year for the new Grant than they were allocated last year for the funding streams it replaces.
But exacerbating that problem, they're not forced to spend the money on helping children at all.
The Grant not only pits funding for early years sustainability, disabled access to childcare and workforce development against short breaks for disabled children and funding for teenage pregnancy and substance misuse prevention - it pits it against the kind of services which are more politically beneficial to improve, like road sweeping or libraries.
I've heard from others in the non-state childcare sector that training and workforce development is under severe pressure because of this - as you would expect. I'd be interested to hear if anyone here is facing the same problem.
The funding for the two year old offer is also wrapped up in this grant, which to use the Minister's own words, is supposed to be unhypothecated and unringfenced.
People I've spoken to in the sector have told me that the amounts Ministers have said they're giving - £63m this year and £223m next year - might not be sufficient anyway, but because there is no protection of that funding with the "unhypothecated" grant, there's no guarantee that those will be the actual amounts allocated.
In short, the Early Intervention Grant is a bit of a mess.
I appreciate that Ministers have to look like they're signed up to this localism narrative, but if you're saying that early development, education and intervention is such a big priority - which it should be - I think that Ministers should be driving forward reforms with targeted funding, not just crossing their fingers and hoping that councils will do what they suggest.
That's what being a Minister is about.
That's why I am backing parents, providers and charities in calling on the government to, at the very least, bring back the ringfence for early years funding.
So you might be asking yourselves what I would do if there was an election tomorrow and I found myself on the other side of the Despatch Box.
Well of course, I would grasp the opportunity with both hands.
We obviously don't have a formal manifesto I could give you yet, but we don't have the famed blank sheet of paper that you read about in the press either.
What we are doing is taking this time to look again over what we did right in government and what we could improve on.
That doesn't mean we don't know what we want to achieve, but we do want to examine how we can achieve it.
What we want to achieve is a society where every child gets what they need to grow up to be the best that they can be, and that every family is supported to provide a stable and loving environment in which their children can thrive.
Fundamental to that is reaching those families for whom life doesn't get better from one generation to the next, and who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and low aspirations.
But at the same time, the principal of universality is an important one - the free entitlement for three and four year olds should remain free to everyone, and a similar offer for two year olds should be the ultimate ambition.
I know there are affordability issues - both to you as the providers and to local and national government, but that free provision is an important way of ensuring we both help parents back into work as well as help their children develop, and it is important that we retain it.
We do not want top-ups, but neither do we want providers to stop providing those places.
It's a complicated issue, but the government and the sector need to ensure that free places are sustainable for providers, and do not simply lead to an increase in fees charged for regular, paid-for hours.
Family budgets are under real strain - particularly now the childcare element of tax credits has been reduced from 80 to 70%.
Increasing childcare costs and stagnating incomes could force many more parents into giving up work to look after their children full time, and that loss of talent and productivity is the last thing our economy needs at the minute, and it's the last thing the sector needs: more parents staying at home means less children in pre-school settings.
To me, it is improving the quality of the care and education that children get - and the support that their parents get - which should be the government's starting point; not making arbitrary cuts and then consulting on how to make the most of whatever remains.
We should be investing in making sure that every child gets the best possible start in life, rather than targeting the youngest children for short-term cuts, which will just store up long-term and expensive problems for later.
The cuts to and destabilising of early years funding, cuts to the childcare element of working tax credit and the lack of clarity on what will replace it under the new Universal Credit, cuts to central and local government funding for voluntary and community sector groups like the Alliance which provide valued support and services - none of this improves the quality and provision of childcare and early education, and therefore the life chances of children and their parents.
But being in Opposition is not just about opposing things.
We need to champion the programmes that are working well, look at how we can improve those which aren't delivering what they should be, and be creative in developing new solutions and new policies to make sure that we are reaching and supporting the families and children who need it the most.
The argument about the value of high quality early years provision has, I think, been won.
Making sure we deliver it is a project that should have no regard for changes in Minister or government.
It is something that we all - as parents, as practitioners, as politicians - have an interest in getting right, so we should all work together towards making sure we do.
You and your colleagues, volunteers and parents are great champions for children and families, and I look forward to working with you and other groups over the coming months to develop our new offer, and constructively scrutinise the policies being put forward by the government.
So thank you once again for inviting me here today, congratulations on reaching this significant milestone, and please continue in your mission to improve the lives of children and families across the country.
I'm sure your next 50 years will be just as fruitful as your first.