Extra 45,000 nursery places to be centred on disadvantaged areas

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The Independent Online

The Government launched a programme billed as "the biggest-ever single investment to expand childcare" yesterday, with plans for 45,000 new nursery places in disadvantaged areas.

Early years specialists welcomed the announcement by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, but said expansion would be jeopardised unless more money was found to train childcare staff and improve their pay and conditions. The additional places will be in 900 newly created nurseries funded by up to £300m of government and lottery money.

Ms Morris also announced £50m of new spending, including £40m to be directed at children aged three or four from disadvantaged areas.

An extra £10m for training childcare workers will be provided by the European Commission. The funds will help with the cost of course fees, supply cover, travel costs and supporting trainees for whom English is a second language.

Ms Morris said the funding was central to the Government's plan to create more places for 1.6 million children by 2004. "This will help us meet our ambition that by March 2004 there should be a childcare place in the most disadvantaged areas for every lone parent entering employment," she said.

"By the same date, we also want an extra 100,000 places for three and four-year-olds that offer an integrated day of early years education and childcare, making it easier for parents to work."

Stephen Burke, the director of the Daycare Trust, a national childcare charity, said: "This is good news for families – particularly for those living in the most disadvantaged communities of Britain."

Lucy Lloyd, the charity's assistant director, added: "One of the major potential brakes on the Government's massive expansion of early years education is the training and recruitment of the workforce.

"[The funding] for training is a step in the right direction, but on its own it will be nowhere near enough."

A spokesman for the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses said funding for training was a big concern, because nursery education had been neglected for too long. "We need to make sure adequate high-quality training is in place if we are to be able to keep up with the expansion of nursery education," he said.

"The pay and conditions of nursery nurses is not good enough to attract enough people into the profession."

Phil Willis, education spokes-man for the Liberal Democrats, accused the Government of "recycling old news" because the money was announced last year.

He added: "The Liberal Democrats have long recommended universal access to nursery places rather than this piecemeal approach, spun only to attract the midsummer headlines.

"Certain guarantees must be put in place – quality cannot be replaced by quantity. Funding must be provided to ensure children are cared for by qualified and motivated staff."

The £300m of nursery funding was first announced in January, when David Blunkett, as the Secretary of State for Education, declared his intention to create 900 nurseriesand invited specialists to develop the centres. Yesterday Ms Morris announced details of how much funding would go to each disadvantaged area.