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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Free places for all three year olds
Nursery school
The government says it is back on track with pre-school targets
Free nursery places for all three year olds has been set as a "long-term" target by the government.

The Education Minister Margaret Hodge has indicated that the next phase of the expansion of pre-school places will be to provide places for all three year olds - raising the prospect that this could become a manifesto promise for the next general election.

Responding to a parliamentary question, the minister said that the government was on track to reach its current targets for increasing places, which "is a vital step in fulfilling our target of free nursery places for all three and four year olds".
Margaret Hodge
Margaret Hodge says places for three years olds have doubled
There are already places for all four year olds - and by 2002 the government has promised there will be places for two thirds of three year olds.

In figures published in reply to a question from Labour MP Ruth Kelly, the minister said an additional 616m had created 120,000 extra pre-school places since 1997.

Another 110,000 places would be available by March 2002, the Department for Education predicted.

That would require a sharp increase in the creation of places.

The government has previously struggled to create extra places, as increases in nurseries were offset by the closure of voluntary and private playgroups.

Targets were slipping

But emergency funding and an independent inquiry into playgroup closures appear to have stemmed the loss of places.

And last month, the Pre-School Learning Alliance welcomed the education secretary's personal intervention in tackling playgroup closures and the financial support packages made available.

Until last year the targets appeared to be slipping away. Places had fallen by 4.5% and the total number of extra places required had reached 190,000.

Prompting the closure of many playgroups had been the increase in primary schools setting up nursery classes.

This had drawn children away from playgroups to the extent that many had become unviable or uneconomic.

This meant that even though new places were being created, the total number of places was falling as many small playgroups closed.

"Every four year old in the country is now able to access a free, high quality, part-time early education place for the three terms before reaching compulsory school age," said the minister.

"By 2002, we will have almost doubled the number of three year old places from 34% to 66% enabling 190,000 three year olds to access a free nursery place."

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