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Let down by poor early-years showing

The United Kingdom has a lot of catching up to do in the area of early-years education, a European Union survey shows. Only 35 per cent of rising fours are catered for although 43 per cent of working mothers have a three-year-old child, says the survey.

The UK picture among the rising fives is better, with nearly three-quarters attending school. This figure includes Northern Ireland where school is compulsory from the age of four. Even so, the nation's under-fives are being short-changed compared with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

Belgium, France and Italy emerge from the survey as the bastions of early-years education in Europe. Nursery school is the norm for two-year-olds in these countries and attendance is high regardless of whether the child's mother works outside the home.

In France, 99 per cent of three-year-olds attend a nursery although only 54 per cent of their mothers go out to work. In Belgium where 61 per cent of women with a three-year-old child have a job outside the home, school starts at around two-and-a-half and 98 per cent attend from the age of three, while in Italy 92 per cent attendance compares with just 39 per cent of mothers who work.

These three countries also lead the field in education for four-year-olds (100 per cent provision in France, 97.5 per cent in Italy and 99.2 per cent in Belgium). Education is available at some form of establishment in Denmark (77 per cent), Greece (78.5 per cent), Spain (97 per cent), Luxembourg (89 per cent) and the Netherlands (97.2 per cent) compared with 74.3 per cent in the UK.

A wide range of pre-primary options are available elsewhere in Europe. Education-oriented kindergartens are prominent in Germany where it is not possible to attend school before the age of five, in Denmark, Austria and Finland where children start at six and in Sweden where they start at seven.

In all these countries, however, all non-school establishments must employ properly qualified staff. The same stringent rules apply in Sweden and Portugal.

The percentage of working mothers exceeding that of three-year-olds attending education-oriented pre-school establishments is found in a majority of countries. The reason, says the report, is that "the numbers of places are limited". Instead, the shortfall is compensated for by a network of creches or child-care centres that are found alongside the pre-school establishments.

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