Blunkett's pounds 6.5m `breathing space' for pre-schools

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The Independent Online
PRE-SCHOOLS run in the community by parents were given a pounds 6.5m lifeline yesterday as David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, pledged high-quality provision for young children.

The package was announced by Mr Blunkett as playgroup organisers warned that hundreds of groups faced closure.

Last year the Pre-school Learning Alliance recorded 800 playgroup closures, largely because schools are scooping four-year-olds into their own nursery and reception classes.

A further 400 have closed so far this year and Margaret Lochrie, the PLA's chief executive, claimed that another 1,000 could be lost by the end of 1998.

"This is a waste at a time when more good-quality child care is desperately needed and when the Government is on the brink of launching a national childcare strategy," she said, as the PLA prepared a series of events in London - including lobbying Parliament and the presentation of a 150,000 signature petition.

Mr Blunkett, addressing the conference organised by the alliance yesterday, said: "Ensuring that we have high-quality provision for young children is a key government priority. The social and intellectual development of children is at the heart of our policies on early education and childcare."

He said that he shared concerns that pre-schools were closing just as plans for expansion of childcare were taking place.

"We are allocating an extra pounds 6m which will provide more than 10,000 extra childcare places integrated with early education for young children," he said. "Pre-schools will be among the beneficiaries of this money. They will be able to provide "wraparound" care - care which extends to the whole day. It will also fund the setting up of new groups - some within primary school sites and school facilities.

"I am also making an extra pounds 500,000 available to help good pre-schools which are in danger of closing ... The funding will give a breathing space to pre-schools to explore new opportunities for consolidating and extending their daycare and early-years education. It will help sustain those high- quality pre-schools at risk of closure." He added: "We don't expect perpetual patience from you, but we do ... intend to get it right."

In place of the nursery vouchers' scheme thought up by the Tories, ministers ordered local education authorities to draw up Early Years Development Plans, working in co-operation with private and voluntary providers. That has already created 60,000 nursery places, fulfilling a Labour pledge to provide a nursery place for every four-year-old. But the PLA says most of the new places are in schools and it remains sceptical, despite ministerial assurances, about local education authority partnership with the voluntary and private sector.

"The Early Years Partnerships are not working as well as they could to deliver resources to the voluntary sector - most four-year-olds are in reception classes - and this is the reason for the closures." said Mrs Lochrie. "The loss of one nursery is a waste; the loss of hundreds is carelessness."