But leaders of the playgroup movement said that the plans would mean most children were in big reception classes which were sometime ill-equipped to cope with them, and playgroups would continue to close.
The scheme will provide 60,000 new places and involve between 300 and 400 new providers. Eighty per cent of places will be in state schools or nurseries and the rest in voluntary or private ones. Parents will be sent a list of providers and will be entitled to five two and a half-hour sessions a week at a cost of pounds 1,100.
The money will pay for a full-time reception class place or a part-time state or private nursery place. Private nurseries will have to offer at least one free place. They will not be able to charge top-up fees for education but will be able to charge for childcare services, for example, if children are cared for early in the morning or in the evening.
A sum of pounds 10m, announced in the budget, will be used to subsidise means- tested childcare at some nurseries. Parents will not be assured of a place at the school or nursery of their choice but ministers say that choice will be wide because, in every local authority, there are more places than four-year-olds. Parents' options will vary according to where they live. In Middlesborough, for instance, where most children already have state school or nursery places there will be few private or voluntary places.
Estelle Morris, the schools minister, said the new partnerships would end the destructive competition for children caused by the previous government's nursery voucher system which had driven some playgroups out of business. The Government would ensure, she said, that four-year-olds in reception classes received suitable education.
Every local authority which has four-year-olds in reception classes has had to show in its plan how their needs will be met. She acknowledged, however, that some still had some way to go. Traditionally, many reception classes have had fewer teachers per child than nursery classes and too little play space for younger children.
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. said: "The Government's commitment to early years education is real but we are very concerned that most children are still going into reception classes at a time when people are asking whether five is too young to start school."
There was no sign that playgroup closures were slowing, she said. Karen Walker of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, said partnerships with local authorities were working well in some places, but said they were still concerned about the restriction of parental choice.Reuse content