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Take a brave early-years step

Think-tank calls for 'courage' in shifting funds from schools to childcare. Joseph Lee reports

A think-tank for children's services has urged the Government to take money from schools and universities to fund childcare.

On the eve of the Labour party conference, where an announcement about the Government's 10 to 15-year plan for the early years is expected, Margaret Lochrie, director of Capacity, said "courage" was needed. She said:

"Everybody is expecting there will be a bigger commitment to early years than there is now.

"There needs to be the courage to switch resources to early years and move money from other parts of the education system.

"I think there's a case to be made that in early years a lot of the problems that children have later can be prevented."

All three and four-year-olds are now entitled to 12.5 hours free nursery education, but a Department for Education and Skills' survey found the European average was 32 hours.

As well as increasing free childcare, children's charities want to see plans for more children's centres, which are being placed in the most deprived areas, and combine early education, health and family support.

Ms Lochrie said childcare was essential to meeting the Government target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. She said: "There are many people who still can't find childcare or who can't afford it. Lots of families live outside the most deprived wards, in small pockets of deprivation.

"If you want to lift people out of deprivation, providing childcare so they can work is essential."

A survey by the Daycare Trust put the cost of a typical full-time private nursery place for a child under the age of two at pound;6,968 a year and at pound;6,396 for older children - making it about as expensive as a place at some independent secondary schools.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has said he eventually wants to see a low-cost children's centre in every community, but has set no deadline. The current plans are to provide for the most deprived 20 per cent of wards by 2008.

A centre in all 10,000 wards in the UK would cost an estimated pound;3.5 billion a year, according to the charity 4Children, and would almost double the Government's investment in childcare.

But the National Children's Bureau, an umbrella group for the children's sector, has warned that the quality of early-years services should not be made to suffer as a result of expansion. It wants as much money to be invested in staff training and pay as in expanding the childcare system.

Sue Owen, director of the early childhood unit, said: "More importantly for us, we would want to see expansion going along with improved quality. We know standards aren't always what they ought to be.

"It costs a lot to put people through qualifications, and a lot to improve pay and conditions of staff.

"There isn't enough provision, but we can't afford to see that in opposition to quality."

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