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Willetts: Our children have a right to childhood

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts said:

"That powerful presentation we've had from Maria explains why Andrew Lansley and I decided we'd try and change the focus of this session. Because although there are important question about the organisation of schools and what is nothing less than a crisis in the NHS, there's something else that lies behind it. It's something that teachers talk to us about, it's something doctors talk to us about, it's something that parents talk to us about: It's nothing less than a deep concern about the wellbeing of our children.

What's happened is that whilst we've been trying to change schools, under our very noses it's been the schoolchildren that have been changing. That's what we're looking at today.

Teachers tell me that they now have children coming to their class who have never held a crayon, who have never seen a book, who've never had an adult read them a story. That is real deprivation.

I was the other day at a nursery school. I was looking at the children playing happily. But there was one girl - she was only about three- who was disconnected, distracted. So I asked the staff what the problem was, what was wrong. Her parents had just split up. She didn't know when she went to that nursery in the morning who was going to collect her that afternoon. She didn't know what home she was going to go back to that evening. That is an incredible burden of stress to put on a three year old child.

Then, as children get older, they need to be able to exercise, they need to be able to roam. They need to be able to feel excitement. But you know what has happened? The average area within which a child in Britain roams freely now has shrunk in one generation to a ninth of what it used to be. We have just one acre of playground for our children for every 80 acres of golf courses. We mustn't be the party that just says "no ball games allowed."

Because we know what happens then. We know the excitement and the danger that children then experience: It's knives at the school gate. It's the drug culture. It's having to join a gang because it's the only way they feel safe on the streets. We don't want our children surrounded by knives and drugs and gangs.

Of course, there are many ways in which life has got better. I think of my own upbringing in Birmingham in the distinctly unfashionable 1970s. It was a loving family. But from what I can remember of my diet, it was baked beans on toast every day, angel delight for pudding, chicken and chips as a treat on Saturdays, and all washed down with bottle after bottle of Corona fizzy pop, probably delivered by William Hague's family firm.

So things have changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But parents worry, and parents always will, about how we are raising our children in Britain today. And we've got to set out an agenda for helping to ensure that the next generation has better opportunities than the ones that we ourselves have enjoyed.

Our starting point should be very simple. I know there's a lot of talk of rights today in Britain. But there's surely one right that we can all agree on: The right to a childhood. And I sometimes think that what's happening to our country is that more and more, we treat adults as if they're children and we treat children as though they're adults.

That's why the first thing we've got to do is to support parents. It's very tough being a parent in Britain today. The last thing they need is an endless flow of new laws and new regulations telling them how they should raise their own children. Why on earth is the Government introducing a national computer register for every child in the country? We're going to have barcoded babies. We don't need it. That money should be better spent targeted on the families that really need the help.

On Saturday I was at the annual conference of the Montessori schools. There are over a thousand of them in Britain. Montessori really understand child development. They understand children's needs to have freedom, particularly in the early years. But do you know what they were telling me? What shocked me? They were telling me that because of the conditions that the Government are attaching to the nursery grant they receive, many of them are in danger of closure. Montessori schools in danger of closure because of clumsy regulations being introduced by this government. We need more flexibility in childcare. We don't need ever greater instructions to childcare providers.

Then of course there are teachers. Now, we talk a lot in our party about more freedom for schools, and that's incredibly important. But I don't think we've said enough about something else that is equally important - more respect for teachers as professionals. That's what we stand for as well.

They've got o much wisdom, so much understanding of children. But do you know what they tell me? That now, one allegation, however ill-founded, then trailed through the media of some misbehaviour or other, however untrue, can be the end of their career. That is why we will be pressing the Government, Nick Gibb and I, as the Education Bill goes through Parliament, to pass legislation guaranteeing teachers anonymity when these allegations are made unless and until charges are actually brought.

If we show teachers respect, we can expect something from teachers in return: A commitment to teaching real subjects. Jamie Oliver has had a massive impact on school dinners, with kids getting real food at lunchtime. But they need to get real subjects during the school day as well. They shouldn't just do general science - every child has a right to do real, individual sciences - biology, physics, chemistry. That's something else we'll be pressing for in the Education Bill.

I believe that every child who leaves a British school should be expected - has a right to know - who William Shakespeare was, who Isaac Newton was, who Winston Churchill was. We are entitled to expect that of the nation's education.

People are talking a lot this week about what the Conservative Party stands for. David Cameron answered that question loud and clear yesterday. We stand for social responsibility. Social responsibility can take many forms: Responsibility to our families, responsibility to our neighbours, responsibilities to our communities. But this morning, today, now, we are focussing on what is perhaps the most important form of social responsibility of the lot: the responsibility we all have to the next generation, to ensure they have even better opportunities - even better chances in life than we ourselves have enjoyed. That is what we should now focus on."

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