An army of 65,000 nursery workers is to be recruited under radical government plans to prepare children as young as two for success at school.
Nick Clegg is to take charge of family policy, ordering a massive expansion in nursery places, vowing to tackle the "crippling" cost of childcare and overhauling parental leave.
In a deeply personal interview with The Independent on Sunday, the father of three revealed he hoped his legacy from his time in government would be removing the barriers to social mobility, which mean bright children from poorer backgrounds are overtaken by youngsters from more affluent families by the age of six.
"Every parent wants their child to do better than they did, and every parent wants their child to fulfil their potential," he said.
State intervention to teach children as young as two will form the centrepiece of his "obsession" which will see childcare made the coalition's highest priority social policy. Next month he will make a major announcement on his "passion" for shared parental leave and for extending the rights of flexible working.
And he pledged to take on those with the "sepia-tinted 1950s" opinion that mothers should not work, after attacks on his City lawyer wife Miriam, claiming her critics are as "weird" as homophobes.
With less than three weeks until the local elections, Mr Clegg seeks to move the political agenda on from post-Budget rows, while striking a more independent tone.
But Professor Colin Rallings and Professor Michael Thrasher, in an analysis for the Political Studies Association, warn that the Liberal Democrats face another difficult set of elections on 3 May. "They could easily find themselves another 200 seats or so down and with fewer than 3,000 councillors across the country for the first time since 1986," they said. "That would represent a further blow to a party whose whole electoral strategy has been based on building up from the grass roots."
Mr Clegg admits the elections will be "tough", but thinks the Lib Dems are entering a "new phase". He refuses to give in to Lib Dems, claiming he should "poke David Cameron in the eye", admits the Government is "in a rut" after successive Budget announcements backfired, and suggests people are "starting to listen" to his message for the first time after two years of "hatred and bile".
Striking a radical new tone, he reveals he hopes his political legacy will be for children from poor backgrounds to achieve more in life, including aspiring to university. "It's the big purpose of why we are in politics in the first place," he said.
Early intervention in the lives of children is "one of the most radical things we are doing and don't shout about enough", he said.
From next year, 260,000 children from the poorest 40 per cent of families in England will receive 15 hours of free childcare during term time, in a move costing £650m. While a cross-party consensus has emerged on the issue, in Westminster at least, the policy risks reopening the debate about state involvement in raising children.
Earlier this year, a Daycare Trust survey revealed more than half of councils do not believe they will be able to meet the Government's target of providing the places for two-year-olds by 2014. Instead, Mr Clegg will pledge to recruit an extra 65,000 nursery workers from September 2013, based on the Government's current assumption of one member of staff per four children. A source said: "In Birmingham alone, it will mean 8,000 additional childcare places, creating 2,000 new jobs."
It is hoped the major expansion in the childcare workforce will also help to ease the pressure on middle-income parents. Childcare costs for under-twos is up 6 per cent year on year, with the cost of 25 hours a week totalling £5,103 on average.
Mr Clegg adds: "If you are a bright but poor kid, despite all the good intentions of the last decade or so, you are still more likely to be taken over in the classroom by a less bright but more affluent child by the age of six or seven.
"What do you do to make children school ready? So even before they hang up their coats they are ready to learn; they are ready to mix with other children; they are enthusiastic, able to be disciplined in class. That's a really big undertaking."
He claims Labour "never dared" to be so bold in tackling social mobility. However, the Rallings and Thrasher analysis, due to be published this week, suggests that Labour could be on course to make big gains in the local elections. The Tories could lose 100 seats in England's metropolitan boroughs.Reuse content