Major hopes for universal nursery education

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday set the Government a new long-term objective of providing a nursery school pace for every child. For the first time, he held out the prospect of extra money to give places to many more three- to four-year-olds.

Going much further than previous statements of Tory policy, the Prime Minister declared: 'When we have the resources, I would like to widen the provision of nursery education.' He said he wanted 'over time to move to universal nursery education'.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mr Major reeled off figures showing that the UK lagged behind many other European Union countries, with only 50 per cent of three- and four-year-olds going to nursery schools. He said that by comparison there was 99 per cent provision in France, 96 per cent in Belgium, 76 per cent in Italy, and 52 per cent in Germany.

Mr Major also promised a drive next year to improve the general standards of inner-city education - including the creation of task forces or educational associations to run schools identified by inspectors as causing serious concern.

He said: 'The top 15 per cent of the youngsters who come out of our schools are the equal of anything you will find anywhere in the world. The other 85 per cent, frankly, are not.'

He also delivered what will be taken as a clear message to Cabinet right-wingers such as Michael Portillo, the Treasury Chief Secretary, that the 'welfare state is secure'. Mr Portillo suggested earlier this month that the value of the state pension would be 'nugatory' or trifling in the 21st century.

Mr Major said more people would have occupational as well as state pensions. But he insisted: 'Our commitment is that the state pension continues and it will continue to maintain its real value.'

On the economy, he reaffirmed the Government's long-term aim of widening the 20p income tax band until it became the standard rate. He said the 'overwhelming probability' was a long period of stable growth and low inflation.