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Childcare lobby fights UK bias

Childcare campaigners claim that different patterns of provision north of the border risk being submerged in the emerging national strategy due to be published in April.

Ministers are under pressure to stress the Scottish dimension in talks currently taking place at the Department for Education and Employment. The Government wants a childcare strategy in place before universal nursery provision for four-year-olds begins in August.

Joan Ruddock, the Minister for Women, and Alan Howarth, a junior education minister, head the investigation, while Brian Wilson represents the Scottish Office.

Bronwen Cohen, director of Children in Scotland, believes the strategy is in danger of overlooking Scotland's interests. Sam Galbraith, the children's minister north of the border, said two weeks ago that he envisaged a UK strategy to take account of the benefits system and other factors but acknowledged differences in Scotland.

Linda Kinney, head of children's services in Stirling, said: "It is essential to have a Scottish childcare strategy because Scottish legislation is different and because of the arrival of the Scottish parliament. It is important to have a strategy based on full co-operation with the childcare agencies and not to have it drawn up in a dark room somewhere in the Scottish Office or Whitehall."

Dr Cohen drafted a European Commission report 10 years ago on the need for a child strategy and is now close to seeing her ambition realised. She says: "Nursery education has always been more significant in Scotland, along with the role of the local authorities. We have the rural areas issue and high levels of child protection in demanding communities. We also have a value system that is different."

Dr Cohen believes it is essential to bring together education, play, recreation and care in one system and to end the split between "universalism and need". She said: "In education, we are talking about all children but at care level it is focused on need. We need a framework for all children and families."

The Scottish Office proposals for the pre-school years stressed that education would have to recognise it was only one element of the picture, she said. "There is a divide between departmental responsibilities and there is a whole diversity of services from playgroups, family centres, childminders and nannies to nurseries. It is a complex picture for parents to wend their way through. Some services cannot be used by parents in employment."

The requirement to publish children's services plans and the initiative on out-of-school care and homework clubs added to the strategy's importance, Dr Cohen said. Local enterprise companies currently fund after-school initiatives and o25 million of lottery cash will offer different patterns of provision.

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