Labour pours millions into under-five care

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Prime Minister to reassure party conference that education is still a top priority. Jon Slater reports

A multi-million pound strategy to improve early education and childcare will be a centrepiece of Labour's annual conference in Brighton next week.

Party leaders will set out their 10 to 15-year strategy which will include flexible free education for all three and four-year-olds and increased support for parents.

Tony Blair intends to make the policy a key theme of the week which will set out the policies Labour will pursue if the party wins a third term.

The Prime Minister, who is speaking on Tuesday, will also set out in more detail his Government's plans to transform secondary education as he attempts to convince voters his attention is fixed firmly on domestic issues despite the problems in Iraq.

He will try to win over critics who worry that the Government's plans for greater parental choice and school autonomy will not boost standards and result in the best schools choosing the best pupils.

Writing in today's TES, David Hawker, vice-chair of the Association of Directors and Children's Services, warns that the Government's plans to give secondaries greater control over their admissions could weaken schools in deprived areas.

This year's political conference season marks the beginning of an extended election campaign, with the Government expected to go to the polls in May next year.

Mr Blair will put clear water between himself and the Conservatives by stressing the Tories' support for selective education and will attack the Liberal Democrats for their opposition to academies.

By contrast, Labour wants to offer parents choice without selection, he will say.

Details of increased investment in early-years education during the next three years are expected to be announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown on Monday.

The strategy, announced as part of the Government's five-year plan in July, will include:

* more opportunities for parents of under-twos to stay at home with their children

* giving all parents access to support from children's Sure Start centres l12.5 hours per week free, flexible, integrated education and childcare for all three-year-olds for 33 weeks a year.

Labour hopes the policy will improve life for working parents and help close the divide between the educational haves and have-nots by improving the skills of disadvantaged children by the time they start school.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Charles Clarke is expected to put flesh on the bones of the Government's plans and give further details of how it will spend money allocated in this summer's spending review.

A source close to the leadership indicated it expects little internal dissent despite an on-going campaign to commit the party to abolishing selection.

A compromise agreed at the party's national policy forum in July, when ministers promised to review the ability of specialist schools to select by aptitude, will ensure there is little discussion of the issue on the floor of conference.

Anti-selection activists will, however, have the chance to listen to a Labour minister explaining why he is overseeing an end to selection. Barry Gardiner, Northern Ireland minister, will set out the province's plans to abolish grammar schools at a fringe meeting organised by the pressure group Comprehensive Future.

Other fringe highlights include musician Billy Bragg, famed for his left-wing views, talking about tolerance in education on Tuesday at a meeting organised by the Holocaust Education trust.

News 12,13 analysis 22; platform 25 Leader 26

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