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Saturday, 29 July, 2000, 01:53 GMT 02:53 UK
Concern over childcare
children in nursery
Increase in places - but many playgroups are struggling
Out-of-school childcare places for children under the age of eight have risen by nearly a quarter in a year, official figures suggest.

A report published by the Department for Education says that by the end of March this year, more than 1.5 million places were available in out-of-school clubs in England, an increase of 23% from last year.

There was also a 12% increase in the number of holiday scheme places available, bringing the total to more than 625,000.

The statistics contained in the 1999/2000 Day Care Facilities Survey have been hailed by the government as proof of the success of its national childcare strategy.

But there are still serious concerns about a fall in the number of playgroups and childminders, and the Tories have accused the government of "fiddling the figures" in an attempt to distract attention from this.
Margaret Hodge
Margaret Hodge: "We can build on this work"

The national childcare strategy was launched in 1998 to create more childcare places, giving parents more support and helping them back into work or training.

Revealing the latest figures, Employment and Equal Opportunities Minister Margaret Hodge said she was "delighted" the government would be able to "build on this work" with the extra money announced for childcare in the chancellor's comprehensive spending review last week.

The cash boost meant that by 2003/04, the amount of money spent on childcare would have more than trebled, to reach a figure higher than 2m, she said.

"Today's figures show the government's commitment to ensuring that all children have the best possible start in life."

The minister added that pre-school places had risen in the last year, with the number of day nurseries also increasing.

Concerns

But the survey also points to the fact that not all aspects of the childcare sector are enjoying such growth.

Problems faced by many playgroups have been well-documented, as they struggle to compete with primary schools offering free pre-school places to three and four-year-olds to help meet the government's childcare targets.

Playgroups have already received some emergency financial help from the government, with the latest 500,000 announced in March.

Revealing the survey statistics, Ms Hodge said another 250,000 grant to help pre-schools and playgroups develop in partnership with others, and respond to the needs to parents.

She said the money would be spent on projects such as targeting families in rural areas, building links with reception classes, and using mentors to spread best practice.

'Failing to deliver'

Another well-known government concern is that over the falling number of childminders in England.

Earlier this month, a campaign was launched to recruit tens of thousands more childminders and playgroup staff.

The government said there would be 5m to recruit 83,000 extra staff for the expanding pre-school sector in England by 2003.

This was in addition to 4.5m in grants for childminders, helping them with start-up costs for safety equipment, insurance and training courses.

But Shadow Education Secretary Theresa May attacked Ms Hodge's positive interpretation of the childcare figures.

She accused her of "re-announcing" money - the 250,000, and added that the national childcare strategy had "failed to deliver".

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See also:

04 Jul 00 | Education
Search for 83,000 child carers
06 Jun 00 | Education
Free places for all three year olds
18 May 00 | Education
Chasing pre-school targets
29 Mar 00 | Education
More money to rescue playgroups
25 Jul 00 | Education
Out-of-school activities increase
17 Feb 00 | Education
17m for out-of-school activities
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