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A real change in childcare;Opinion

More than half of the mothers of under-fives now work. Ten years ago there were fewer than a third. That statistic alone explains the need for the childcare strategy unveiled by the Secretary of State this week. Another fact is that fathers in Britain work longer hours than elsewhere in Europe.

Parenting needs time spent with children, whether or not it is the "quality time" that excites magazine writers. But if both parents want or need to work, the children also require to be cared for and have their lives enriched by others. At present that is difficult to achieve and almost always expensive when it is available.

The new partnerships which the childcare strategy wants created would have as their first task an audit of provision. Parents will be keen to know the results, which are bound to show a widely varying pattern and will be news to many families. One of the problems has been lack of knowledge of available facilities and eligibility to help with paying for them. Donald Dewar's document ascribes blame to previous governments which relied on market forces. In fact, the reason is more deep-seated: no one in this country took the challenge sufficiently seriously until recently.

As illustration of that, consider after-school clubs. Only a year or two ago they depended wholly on local initiative and short-term grants. Likewise, nursery places were a matter of local discretion and widely differing practice. The last Government with its voucher scheme started to impose a national pattern. Mr Dewar and his colleagues in the south have a deeper commitment, not least because childcare is an essential component of the New Deal strategy for training and employment.

The strategy is well thought out and clearly presented. It will bring hope to many families, and to mothers in particular. There will be debate about the sums of money already available or promised over the next few years. How much is new money? No matter any skilful presentation, the Government will not be able to escape the long-term consequences of having trumpeted change and raised expectations.

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