Big rise in free nursery places for 2-year-olds

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The Independent Online

Plans for a big expansion in the number of two-year-olds being offered free nursery education will be unveiled this week.

Plans for a big expansion in the number of two-year-olds being offered free nursery education will be unveiled this week.

Ministers will make the establishment of new integrated children's centres - offering both healthcare and nursery education - the focal point of their 10-year strategic plan for future childcare. The plan is due to be published with Gordon Brown's pre-Budget proposals later this week.

The Chancellor is also expected to announce an increase in paid parental leave after 2006.

Research from the accountants Pricewaterhouse-Coopers suggests that the build-up of a generous childcare and early years package could mean extra gross costs to the Exchequer of around £8.5bn by 2010, at current prices. Ministers are already committed to launching 500 pilot schemes offering 12,000 two-year-olds in the country's most disadvantaged areas free nursery education by 2008.

However, the findings of a research report last week that children who have been in pre-school education since the age of two are up to a year ahead in maths and English in comparison with those children kept at home by their parents have convinced ministers of the need to expand the programme.

They are already on target to meet a pledge to make a nursery place available to every three- and four-year-old whose parents want them to have one by next year - when the next election is likely.

Therefore, they argue, the logical place for expansion is among provision for two-year-olds. The 10-year blueprint is expected to underline this.

Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, said the finding that "the earlier the start [to pre-school education], the better the outcome" was "a finding which will influence the way we think in the future".

She said the pilot schemes would offer "part-time pre-school experience to two-year-olds". The research showed there was no more advantage to be gained from sending a child to nursery school full-time than offering a place for five half-days.

Coupled with the pledge to expand the integrated children's centres will be confirmation of the Government's plans to encourage schools to "open all hours" to offer care facilities to working parents.

Mr Blair wants all schools to offer what was described as "educare" in the Government's five-year plan for schools, from 8am until 6pm.

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