More free nursery places for two-year-olds and a massive boost to the Government's flagship free school programme were the key education elements of Chancellor George Osborne's package yesterday.
In addition, he allocated £600m to areas facing the greatest pressure to provide more school places. Many councils in inner London, in particular, face a shortfall in providing primary school places.
While the expansion in the number of nursery places won him acclaim – although Labour pointed out the programme was first devised under Gordon Brown's premiership – there were accusations of "elitism" over the new free schools. Mr Osborne's package would create a further 100 schools run by parents, charities or private providers, with a particular focus on providing specialist maths colleges – at a cost also of £600m – 12 of them for 16- to 18-year-olds.
Mr Osborne said they were "what Britain needed to match its competitors". He added: "Too many children are leaving school after 11 years of compulsory education without the basics they need for the world of work."
However, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) described it as "bad news indeed" for education.
"At a time of unprecedented economic pressure, it is incomprehensible the Government is committing that sum of funding to creating 100 new free schools when so many existing schools are in desperate need of investment," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of ASCL.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the plans benefited "the few not the many".
On the childcare plan, currently a pilot, it will be rolled out nationally – at a cost of £380m per year by 2014/15 – to ensure about 40 per cent of two-year-olds (260,000 toddlers) from the most disadvantaged communities benefit from it. "Education, early years learning, this is how you change the life chances of our least well-off and genuinely lift children out of poverty," said Mr Osborne.
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Daycare Trust, said: "We warmly welcome the announcement of the doubling of free childcare places for two-year-olds."
However, the announcement that was causing most controversy in the education world, was the one which extended a curb on public sector pay for a further two years – limiting rises to one per cent each year.
Teachers' leaders said the timing could sway more of their members into supporting today's one-day strike over cuts to their pensions. Already, the Government is acknowledging that more than 90 per cent of schools will be closed for the day.