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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 20:58 GMT
Poor 'may start learning at two'
Children playing
The minister warned some parents had lost confidence in their skills
Children from poor families could begin pre-school learning at age two to help give them more stability and stimulation, MPs have heard.

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said parents were the "single biggest factor" in educational performance.

But she told the Commons education select committee that involvement in family life was "not necessarily usual territory for government".

Most children in England start free pre-school learning at age three.

'Family arrangements'

The government is piloting this type of provision for 12,000 two-year-olds in some of the poorest areas of the country.

Ms Hughes ruled out giving grants to grandparents who look after children whose parents are too busy.

And when asked by Conservative MP Rob Wilson whether two-parent families were "better in most cases" than single-parent families, she said: "It's not for us to prescribe family arrangements.

"But the evidence shows, and it makes sense, that if you have two parents sharing responsibility for bringing up children that can make a difference to outcomes.

"Our job is to support family arrangements."

About 40% of children living in poverty were in households headed by a couple, she said.

"If a child is in a more impoverished background where they are not necessarily going to get the enriching, stable environment at home, it will be to their advantage to start good-quality pre-school learning earlier."

She also said: "It's not necessarily usual territory for government and we make it clear it's parents who bring up their children, and not government."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Beverley Hughes made the point that, for some two-year-olds, access to high quality play-based provision can have a beneficial effect on their later learning and development, especially if these opportunities aren't available at home.

"This isn't about formal structured lessons for very young children."

Last week, the minister said parents who did not read and sing nursery rhymes to their young children should be helped to do so.

Rhymes 'boost child development'
14 Nov 06 |  Education
Pre-school spending leads world
13 Sep 05 |  Education

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