Plans to put 3-year-olds in nursery

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The Independent Online
Legislation to compel local authorities to ensure that education is provided for three and four-year-olds would be introduced under government proposals expected to be published today.

Draft guidelines on the Government's pledge to provide free nursery education for all four-year-olds aim to end the lottery of schooling for under-fives: in some authorities nearly all four-year-olds receive nursery education while, in others, hardly any do. The proposal would overturn legislation introduced by the Conservatives 16 years ago which made it clear that councils had no statutory duty to provide nursery education.

Guidelines to be sent out for consultation say that the school starting age would remain the same so parents would still choose whether they wanted education for younger children.

However, they say that to guarantee the achievement of the targets for four-year-olds and three-year-olds it would be necessary to place a statutory duty on local authorities to secure the provision of nursery education for a specific age range of pupils.

The consultation document asks whether such a duty would be desirable and when it should come into force. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has said that he wants all four-year-olds to have a free nursery place by next September and that, eventually, there should be places for all three-year-olds.

Local authorities are being asked to draw up plans to show how they would achieve the targets. Part of the funding for nursery education, the guidelines propose, would be an earmarked grant to be released only if Mr Blunkett approves an authority's plan.

Authorities will have to set up new bodies to draw up plans by next April. The bodies should include parents as well as representatives from the private and voluntary sector, the guidelines suggest.

Ministers' ultimate aim is for the bodies to plan childcare and education for all children aged one to eight. The Government will invite bids for the establishment of 25 pilot centres of excellence which will be expected to show how early education and childcare can be combined with other family services such as adult literacy programmes and parenting courses. Sue Owen of the National Children's Bureau early childhood unit said yesterday that she welcomed the proposal for a new duty on local authorities but legislation alone would not achieve the Government's aims. "You have to make things mandatory to make serious change but you also have to do something to ensure quality and to provide funding."

Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee, said that local authorities would welcome a change in the law. "It will help to ensure that authorities prepare proper plans for nursery provision."