Labour's early-years blueprint
A Labour government, said a 15-page statement from the party, would integrate the education and care of young children into one, coherent early-years service and set up 25 pilot Early Excellence centres.
It would boost the relationship between health visitors, childminders and parents, make parenting skills part of the national curriculum, and encourage senior citizens to become "foster grandparents."
Labour also plans to set up a network of after-school clubs as part of its policy to get lone mothers back to work.
David Blunkett, the party education and employment spokesman, identified Pounds 185 million which Labour would use to provide a free nursery place for all four-year-olds. The cash would come from scrapping the nursery vouchers scheme (the Pounds 20m the party claims is being spent on "voucher bureaucracy" plus a further Pounds 3m the Government is spending on advertising the vouchers), matched funding from education authorities and Training and Enterprise Councils, and money from the European Structural Funds which provide capital investment and funding for vocational training in areas of industrial decline.
But Mr Blunkett conceded that aims such as making under-fives' adult:child ratios consistent across all nurseries, playgroups and reception classes could not be achieved overnight.
He said a Labour Government would publish a White Paper on a new framework for education which would include its plans for an integrated early-years service.
The document, Early Excellence: A Head Start for Every Child, was welcomed by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, the National Childminding Association, the Health Visitors Association, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.
In a chapter on raising standards, it says: "At present nursery services are provided by two departments, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health, working under separate legislation. Adult:child ratios differ, as do regulations on space and qualifications. The Government has not grasped the opportunity offered by their recent nursery voucher legislation to make sense of this mess - introducing a 'light-touch' inspection, and appointing Group 4, a company with no experience in nursery education, to oversee the operation.
"Labour will rationalise the current system, through legislation to introduce common standards of regulation and inspection. We will draw on the best of both frameworks - education and social services - to create a universal framework for registration and inspection."
The document stresses the spirit of co-operation: "Under the voucher scheme, one provider competes with another. Early experience suggests that as reception classes expand, playgroups will close. With such lack of good provision, it is an unforgivable waste not to retain all the services which exist - improving quality where appropriate."
"Early-years development plans" would form the basis for partnership between all state, voluntary and private providers of under-fives education, says Labour. Local authorities would convene early-years forums to plan for their areas and set targets for expansion.
The party also wants to develop "a climbing frame" of vocational qualifications for under-fives workers . Playgroup workers and childminders would receive accreditation for their experience and go on to gain formal qualifications.
Labour health spokeswoman, Tessa Jowell, who launched the document with David Blunkett and Margaret Hodge, told the story of a mother who asked her health visitor whether she was supposed to read to her son while he was awake or asleep. "The health visiting service is being whittled away to no more than a crisis intervention service."
Labour wants to encourage fathers to play a bigger role in the education and care of their children, and investigate the existing "foster granny" schemes in the United States and this country, where retired people with experience of parenting would be encouraged to unofficially "adopt" or mentor a child or their family.