THE GOVERNMENT'S new national childcare strategy is "not just about looking after children, it is about children's development and education", said Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett this week.
The long-awaited Green Paper consultation on the strategy brought together previously announced plans for a massive expansion in nursery places, after-school clubs and training and regulation of childcare workers. It was described by one childcare campaigner as "a sea change in family-friendly politics".
Harriet Harman, the Social Security Secretary, said: "For too long policy was made by people who thought that a nursery was something you visited on a Sunday to buy your bedding plants. Britain was regarded as a country that was not child-friendly. We weren't concerned unless they were in school or in trouble."
By April 1999 all local authorities must have childcare plans in place which set out how needs will be met. Local authorities have the rest of the year to find out what parents want and need, with funding of up to pound;12 million.
Childcare charities have warned that a year will not be long enough to both create places and train thousands of workers. Anne Longfield, director of Kids Club Network, said: "There is a need to act quickly and get the infrastructure up and running. But that must be balanced with the enormity of the task in hand. A single year's timetable is a concern."
Colette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust, called the strategy a "once in a lifetime opportunity" but warned that the proposed expansion of places must not be at the expense of quality. She said: "The challenge now lies with local authorities, schools, training and enterprise councils, colleges, and employers to work togther and meet the needs of parents and children across the country."
The plans will also mean increased cooperation between social services and education departments.
Ann Longfield said the onus was on schools to "open their doors" to the voluntary sectors. She said: "Schools are key to making this work. They must be be more open and flexible about allowing their buildings to be used by the voluntary sector than they ever have been in the past."
Ms Harman said after-school or holiday clubs must stress raising standards and homework. She claimed "a new flowering of music, drama and the arts across the country" could result.
STEPS TOWARDS A CHILD-FRIENDLY NATION
* Local childcare strategies in place by April 1999.
* New early excellence centres, and improved links between childcare and the new 8,000 study support centres.
* Better training and regulation for childcare workers * More affordable childcare with a new "tax credit" from 1991, providing up to pound;70 per week for a family with one child and up to pound;105 for two children for those earning up to pound;17,000 a year.
* Some help available for families earning up to pound;30,000 * More access with more places, supported by pound;300 million - including pound;170m from the National Lottery - over the next five years.
* More out-of-school clubs and study support sessions both after school and in the holidays. At least 1million places over the next five years.
* A free place in education for every four-year-old from September 1998, and a new national hotline to tell parents where they can find places.
* An extra pound;20m for training childcare workers, providing more plces under the Out of School Childcare Initiative, boosting local partnerships, and helping early-years education and childcare in education action zones.
* Increase in child benefit. From April 1999 all families will get an extra pound;2.50 a week child benefit for the first child.
The consultation paper, Meeting the Childcare Challenge, is available from the Stationery Office, priced pound;8.25. Tel 0171 873 0011