The announcement represents a retreat from plans the Prime Minister put forward last year about providing universal nursery education for three- and four-year-olds.
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, warned later that the initiative could not be funded out of the existing education budget. She added that it would 'not necessarily' mean a voucher system although she did not rule this out: 'It will have to be new money. This is a significant commitment which he has made. It will have to be slowly rolled out. It will be complex and it will have to be introduced on a planned, progressive basis.'
Mr Major said that he had asked Mrs Shephard to draw up proposals to provide places for all four-year-olds whose parents want them. 'This is a long-term proposal, but we intend that this new provision will begin to come on stream during this Parliament. It won't be easy. Any additional publicly-funded provision must be of high quality. It must be targeted in a way that expands, and does not crowd out the private and voluntary provision that we have at present,' he said.
Last December, Mr Major said he wanted 'over time to move to universal nursery education'. The announcement represents a significant step from that position - nursery education must include a formal teaching element which is not necessarily available in playgroups or mother-and-toddler groups.
Nursery schools' campaigners welcomed the announcement, but warned that putting four-year-olds into school reception classes before they were ready for formal education would lead to 'disaster'. Vicky Hurst, a vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said any real expansion of nursery education would be welcome, but must be accompanied by proper investment in training and monitoring of standards. Simply sending more four-year-olds to school would not do.
'I have seen classrooms with four-year-olds and they are just unsuitable. They can't run in and out, they can't play and explore. I am sure we would have an emotional and mental health disaster on our hands,' she said.
Margaret Lochrie, administrator of the Pre-school Playgroups' Association, which has already had talks with Mrs Shephard on the expansion, welcomed the move. 'We very much hope that we will have the opportunity to talk about how we can ensure that all playgroups are able to offer high-quality provision,' she said.
Mr Major also reaffirmed the Government's plan to make all children play team games at school. All pupils aged from five to 16 would play sport, and two hours per week should be the minimum allowed for physical education. 'I don't regard sport, especially team sport, as a trivial add-on to education - it's part of the British instinct, part of our character,' he said.