Free childcare places for two-year-olds 'to double'

Nursery Mr Clegg said the scheme was aimed at "helping the families that need it most"

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The number of two-year-olds entitled to free childcare will double next year, the deputy prime minister has said.

From Monday, 130,000 two-year-olds from the poorest families, or in care, will get 15 hours' free childcare a week.

Next year that number will rise to 260,000 children when parents who earn less than £16,190 a year and receive working tax credits become eligible.

But a charity raised concerns that nursery closures could mean there were not enough places to take up.

Three and four-year-olds are currently entitled to 15 hours per week of "early education" for 38 weeks a year.

The places can be in nursery schools, children's centres, day care nurseries, playgroups, pre-schools and with accredited child minders.

A £534m scheme coming into force on Monday allows two-year-olds from families in receipt of certain benefits - such as income support or income-related employment and support allowance - or those who are in the care of the local authority, to receive 15 hours of free childcare a week.

'Brighter start'

In a speech in Hammersmith, west London, Mr Clegg said the government would increase the money invested in the scheme to £760m in 2014/15.

Mr Clegg said: "From this time next year, we will extend that helping hand even further, doubling the number of youngsters getting a brighter start in life.

"All the evidence shows that if you take two children - two five-year-olds hanging up their coats next to each other on the first day of school - the poorer child will already be behind their better-off classmate before a single lesson has been taught.

"Without this help, children suffer and the whole class suffers as teachers have to focus more of their efforts on children who are frustrated and left behind through no fault of their own."

But Anand Shukla, head of national charity the Family and Childcare Trust, said: "We are concerned that the loss of nursery provision in children's centres is impacting on local authorities' ability to find sufficient places for the offer.

"Cost savings have driven nursery closures and this approach reduces capacity in the system, which will damage government hopes of meeting its targets for provision of childcare for two-year-olds."

Neil Leitch, of the Pre-school Learning Alliance charity, said it was a "tremendous initiative" but must be properly funded if Mr Clegg was to achieve "the brighter start in life for these children that he wants".

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