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Consultants say it paysto invest in early years

Comprehensive early education, childcare and parental leave would have significant social and economic benefits for Britain, according to consultants.

A study, by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, found that the annual estimated pound;15 billion cost would be off-set by increased parental employment and better prospects for children.

Furthermore, it said, high-quality pre-school education could reduce child poverty and boost opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report, Universal early education and care in 2020: costs, benefits and funding options, outlines a vision of services for children and families, developed by the Daycare Trust and the Social Market Foundation.

The organisations want to extend paid parental leave from six to 12 months, introduce home care allowances for parents with children aged up to 24 months and extend free early-years education to all two-year-olds.

They also want a childcare entitlement for the full working day for parents who want it, and 8am to 6pm provision for five to 14-year-olds in line with the Government's extended schools proposals.

There should also be better training and qualifications structure for early-years workers.

Stephen Burke, director of the Daycare Trust, said: "All parents and children should have the chance to enjoy time as a family and have access to quality affordable childcare and early education to get the best start in life.

"It's vital that we continue to be ambitious and develop a clear vision for the future that builds on existing achievements."

Vidhya Alakeson, research fellow at the Social Market Foundation, said:

"Life chances are being undermined by the lack of meaningful choices in early education and care for disadvantaged families.

"Pursuing choice for all requires major changes in the current early-years system, including the introduction of government grants for childcare to replace the childcare tax credit."

John Hawksworth, head of macro-economics at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the main author of the report, said: "Once the wider social benefits are taken into account, it can be argued that, even if the costs slightly outweigh the quantifiable economic benefits, this policy would still be an attractive one to pursue because of its wider social benefits."

The Government has pledged to provide affordable childcare for all parents and a Sure Start children's centre in every community.

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