Almost 1,000 two-year-olds are to benefit from free childcare a year early, after it was decided to bring forward trials in 10 areas in England to this September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced today.
He also announced changes to introduce greater flexibility to allow more parents to take advantage of the scheme - already used by more than 800,000 three and four-year-olds.
It is intended that 150,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will receive up to 15 hours a week of free pre-school education from September 2013, rising to 260,000 in 2014.
Chancellor George Osborne announced in his 2010 spending review that the free childcare currently available to three and four-year-olds would gradually be extended to two-year-olds in England.
Following a consultation, Clegg announced today that the first areas to benefit, in September this year, will be Blackpool, Cornwall, Greenwich, Kent, Lambeth, Lancashire, Newcastle, Northamptonshire, Peterborough and Rotherham.
He added that parents will be given the option to spread their free nursery place over two days, rather than three, and to use the free hours between 7am and 7pm, rather than 8am and 6pm. The changes are intended to make it easier to fit the childcare around working lives.
New guidance will also make clear that nurseries cannot make the free childcare conditional on parents also taking up additional paid-for hours.
Clegg said: "We're revolutionising the early start our children get in life - there will be more free childcare, it will be higher quality, and it will be more flexible for parents.
"By getting things right from the off, we're making sure our youngsters are ready to learn when they start school so that they get the most out of their education.
"Every child should have a fair crack at the whip from the start and be able to go on to fulfil their potential."
The money to fund free early years education will be ring-fenced within the Dedicated Schools Grant from April 2013, so that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders can be confident about funding if they decide to expand to offer new places, he said.
The additional amount invested on early education by the Government will have risen by more than £1 billion a year, said Clegg, who was today holding a summit with childcare providers to discuss the new plans.
Labour children and families spokeswoman Sharon Hodgson said: "Labour introduced free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds and we support its extension - we set out concrete plans to do this at the last election.
"But instead of just announcing more pilots, the Government should develop a comprehensive plan for childcare.
"While children's centres are closing or having their budgets squeezed, ministers must be clear about how they are going to ensure that there is enough well-qualified staff and accommodation in order to provide good-quality care for an extra 260,000 children.
"There are real concerns for families, as nurseries begin charging top-up fees, children's centres funding is slashed, and family tax credits are being cut."
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "High-quality early education is the key to making a difference early on in a child's life. All the evidence shows how important it is for their development.
"The challenge now is to make sure the least advantaged two-year-olds are able to access their early education entitlement.
"Too often, the most disadvantaged children don't get what they are entitled to. It's important we now work with councils, nurseries and childminders to target free early education at those who stand to benefit the most.
"I am determined that the coalition Government will do all it can to make sure the poorest two-year-olds and their families can reap the benefits from our investment around the country."
Clegg told BBC Breakfast that he hoped the initiative would make a "dramatic difference."
"The basic challenge, of course, if you are going to expand the amount of child care provision to two year olds, you need more people properly qualified to do that and we need more places," he said.
"That is why we are carefully piloting this new initiative.
"It is a revolution in childcare to extend this to two year olds as of this September and then going up in very steady steps."
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