Nursery places `are a lottery'

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The Independent Online
State provision of nursery education has failed to expand and remains a lottery depending on where children live, according to new figures. There are vast differences between regions. Local authorities such as Walsall, Cleveland and Sandwell provide pre-school facilities for 90 per cent or more children compared to 22 per cent in West Sussex.

There has been little improvement in numbers attending nursery school or in places at primary school reception classes. Department for Education figures for England disclosed in a parliamentary reply to Labour MP Stephen Byers show 52 per cent of three and four-year-olds had full or part-time nursery places, last year - an increase of only 1 per cent on the previous year.

The statistics were revealed as the department confirmed it was considering allowing nursery schools to recruit teachers without full qualifications. This would enable the Government to fulfil John Major's pledge to begin offering places to every four-year-old before the next election.

Eric Forth, the education minister, is due to present a report to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, within eight weeks outlining a provisional plan for meeting the target. The proposals are believed to include setting a core curriculum,establishing an independent inspectorate and setting out required teaching qualifications.

Mr Byers said: "Despite all the fine words from John Major and Gillian Shephard about the importance of under-fives provision for these figures show that provision in this vital area has come to a standstill. It is simply not acceptable to have a situation in which some parts of the country only provide a nursery place for one in four. Good quality under-fives provision is crucial for the future development of a child.''

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said Labour-controlled authorities had a better record than Conservative-led councils.

"The fact that there are insufficient numbers of quality nursery teachers is a result of poor planning by a Government which has until recently shown no commitment to the expansion of nursery education. We must start to rectify this deficit as a matter or urgency."

The DFE insisted a decision on how to fund and manage the targeted expansion in provision would not be announced until the Government's taskforce of advisers had completed its brief.

A spokeswoman said: "Previously there has been no statutory requirement for local authorities to provide for the under-fives. John Major has made a clear commitment to ensure that greater provision is phased in. Nothing has been ruled out.''