Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment are finalising the details of measures to protect children and improve education in their early years.
The new inspection system for playgroups and childminders would assess whether children were cared for and how well they were learning. It would replace the existing two-tier system where social services are responsible for ensuring children are not being abused, and the Office for Standards in Education examines how well they are learning.
At the same time, the curriculum for pre-school children is being rewritten, to make it less prescriptive, and to emphasise the importance of learning basic skills such as communication or sociability rather than counting or spelling. The Government has made childcare a priority. It announced details of a National Childcare Strategy and has included a childcare tax credit in the working families' tax credit available to couples earning up to pounds 30,000. Margaret Hodge, the education minister, will tomorrow tell a conference organised by the Day Care Trust that extra funds are to be allocated for training childminders and nursery teachers. "We need to tackle head-on the issue of quality," she says. "For the National Childcare Strategy to succeed we need to gain the confidence of people by raising the quality of what's on offer. We need to make sure that the inspection regime is the best possible, to ensure high standards of care and education."
A new voluntary register for nanny agencies is also being planned - similar to the schemes which regulate the travel industry - to improve the quality of staff. But it is unlikely that a national compulsory register for individual nannies will be set up. The Government considers this impractical.
And the care of youngsters over eight is likely to be regulated for the first time under the new rules, to be introduced following a wide- ranging review.
Ministers believe the system is not doing enough to protect vulnerable children. They were shocked by several high-profile cases of paedophiles operating through play groups, including the recent ring in Newcastle.
Colette Kelleher, director of the Day Care Trust, welcomed the Government's decision to introduce a single inspection scheme. "The distinction between care and education is a false dichotomy which doesn't really help the child," she said.
But she warned that the Government should do more to ensure its new proposals were effective for ordinary families.
"I'm worried about the fragmentation," she said. "We have got a lot more money going in and a lot more policies happening, but they're not pulled together. We want a better deal for children and parents, not dogma."
National Childcare Strategy: Promised in manifesto; paper setting it out published in May.
Out of school places: Funding announced in first budget, in July 97.
Help for single mothers: Extra child care was part of lone parents' New Deal.
Out of school clubs: pounds 300m over five years in November 97 budget.
Tax: Couples earning up to pounds 30,000 to get childcare tax credit as part of working families tax credit from October 99 - announced in March 98 budget.
Childcare review: Re-examination of regulations announced in April.
Nurseries and playgroups: pounds 44m for councils to set up more.
Toddlers: pounds 540m more for 0-3 year olds.