Ministers have this month announced 21 projects aimed at tackling deprivation in families with babies and toddlers. The schemes include free books and toy bags for children, reading projects for fathers, story-telling classes, family cookery lessons and help for parents with drug or alcohol addictions.
The initiative comes under the banner of Sure Start - the Government's scheme for overcoming poverty in the early years. It will provide families with advice on early education and health care.
As part of the wider Sure Start programme, families will be given help on reading and playing with their children, and practical and emotional support from a new network of outreach workers who will visit parents at home.
Ministers have set aside pound;80 million for Sure Start over the next two years, and will approve more projects in the summer.
Education Secretary David Blunkett says the scheme will help stop "disadvantage being handed out at birth" and ensure children are "thriving and ready to learn when they start school".
The programme, which draws on similar schemes in the United States, will target families living in deprived areas. The first 60 such areas, or trailbrazers, were announced in January. From there, 250 projects will be set up over three years from a budget of pound;452 million.
Health minister Tessa Jowell, who chairs a cross-departmental ministerial committee responsible for the scheme, said Sure Start projects could be run out of doctors' surgeries, shopping centres or Early Excellence centres - the flagship early learning and family support centres set up last year.
The scheme, combined with the introduction of nursery education for two thirds of three-year-olds, the implementation of a class size pledge, the literacy and numeracy strategies, and plans for a new "foundation stage" of learning for three to six-year-olds, exemplifies New Labour's belief that laying foundations in the early years reaps benefits later.
The first example of Labour's "joined-up government", Sure Start is part-run by the Treasury, and the departments for Education and Employment, and Health, but also links with the Social Exclusion Unit and other crime reduction projects.
It forms part of a package of strategies designed to improve services for families and children, including the National Childcare Strategy and Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships.
SURE START Key Aims
* Seamless approach from birth to start of compulsory education at age five
* Children "thriving and ready to learn" on arrival at school
* Early education and family health services combined
How will it work?
* Outreach and home visiting
* Support for families and parents, including befriending and social support
* Services to support good quality play, learning and childcare for children
* Primary and community healthcare, and advice about child health and development, as well as parental health
* Early identification of and support for children with special needs
* Help and advice on early literacy and numeracy for parents
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