Race to secure free education for Norwich toddlers

Education bosses have warned they face a 'considerable challenge' to secure enough places in Norwich to ensure thousands of city two-year-olds get free education from next year.

At the moment, all three and four-year-olds are eligible for 15 hours of free early education per week, but from September next year, two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are due to start receiving free pre-school education.

However, officers at Norfolk County Council have acknowledged the race against time they have on their hands to make sure enough nurseries and childcare providers expand to provide the places which will be needed.

They are particularly concerned that there are not currently enough providers in some parts of Norwich, as well as Great Yarmouth - areas where high numbers of eligible two-year-olds live.

While government cash is available to fund the expansion of nurseries and children's centres, without having those facilities in the first place, officers face a challenge in making sure places are available.

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Jill Warwick, childcare commissioner at Norfolk County Council, said: 'The essential position is that Norfolk County Council is preparing to respond to the new government requirement to provide funded childcare places for 4,700 two year old children in the county - 2,000 by September 2013 and a further 2,700 by September 2014.

'The new duty represents a considerable challenge due to the current lack of provision in certain areas, which includes Great Yarmouth and several areas of Norwich.

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'Of course, the availability of provision is highly dependent on the market and part of our role will be to provide a stimulus to the local market of providers.

'The authority is extending the current allocation of places to help build up to the future requirement and funding for 1,000 places are available within this financial year.'

The county council has set up a special project team to try to tackle the issue, with early years development workers working with childcare providers and children's centres to encourage them to consider expanding.

A newsletter is also being circulated this month which highlights the shortage and asks providers, including child minders, to consider if they can help the county council to plug the gap.

The government has confirmed that money to fund the free early education will be ring-fenced within the Dedicated Schools Grant from April 2013, so nurseries, pre-schools and childminders can be confident that, if they expand to offer these new places, the funding will be available.

And Norwich South MP Simon Wright, a Parliamentary Aide to Liberal Democrat minister for children and families Sarah Teather, who has played a key role in the rolling out of the scheme, said it was vital the places were created.

He said: 'Every county will have its own challenges based on its own situation and this is an ambitious programme to roll out, with 2,000 more children getting free education from next September.

'But I would hope, given the lead in time, that the county council will be able to organise sufficient places.

'The government has appointed Mott MacDonald to provide a package of support to local councils and the money is coming because there is recognition that there will need to be investment up front to get providers to expand.'

He said the creation of the free education would make a 'real difference' to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and said analysis of Norfolk's GCSE results made clear that children from such backgrounds needed extra help.

• Do you have an education story? Call Norwich Evening News education reporter Victoria Leggett on 01603 772468 or email victoria.leggett@archant.co.uk

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