They said 1,700 groups - caring for tens of thousands of children under five - were in imminent danger. Total closures could rise to 6,000 by 2002 if ministers failed to take long-term action, said Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. She said that 1,500 groups had already closed since 1997.
Margaret Hodge, minister in charge of early-years education, yesterday ordered an independent inquiry into the future of playgrounds. She said the reports were "worrying" but disputed the alliance's figures, saying that only 100 groups closed last year. Mrs Hodge said the pounds 500,000 grant, the second in as many years, would "tide over" playgroups until the new working families tax credit gave parents more money to spend on playgroup fees.
But campaigners said a similar sum last year saved only about 500 groups, leaving another 800 to close. A nursery place is already guaranteed for every four-year-old whose parents want one, and government plans for further expansion will see places for three-year-olds doubled to 190,000 by 2001. But Mrs Lochrie said that the Government's childcare policy was under threat.
The problem has its origins in the introduction of nursery vouchers, brought in by the Conservatives to pay for nursery places for four-year- olds. Schools, anxious for extra funding, opened their doors to nursery- age children, a trend that has continued under the Labour Government's programme to offer nursery places for all four-year-olds.
Nursery campaigners say that many parents feel forced to send their children to school at four, leaving playgroups with dwindling numbers and little financial support. At the Allsorts Pre-School in Weymouth, Dorset, supervisor Denise Pinney said most four-year-olds left to start school in September.
"We will not close, because we will fight to stay open, but a third of our children are leaving a term earlier than they used to. The reason for that is government funding, because schools want to take advantage and get the money. A lot of places have closed and we're going to have to increase our fees."
Mrs Lochrie welcomed the extra funding, which will help playgroups in immediate danger of closure. A similar grant last year is thought to have saved 500 groups. But she said that long-term funding was needed to maintain the pre-school movement.
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