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For me, one of the Government's most important commitments has been our offer of 15 hours of free early education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds. Now that offer is being extended even further to help even more children.

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In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced an extra £380m a year by 2014-15. It will mean that in total up to 260,000 two-year-olds (around 40 per cent) will benefit from free early education.

I hope the extra funding shows you just how much of a priority the Government is placing on quality early education. Even as we've had to make cuts elsewhere, we've increased resources for children and families in need.

And we continually see evidence of why it's so important to invest now. The recently published Early Years Foundation Stage profile results for 2010 showed that only 44 per cent of five-year-olds eligible for free school meals achieved a good level of development, compared with 62 per cent of other children.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity that the first five years of a child's life offer. This is the time we can make the biggest difference to change the life chances of the poorest children. Getting their education right early and providing them with the nurture, care, intellectual stimulus and structured play and learning which prepares them for school, will set them on the path to future success.

CHANCE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

I realise I am somewhat preaching to the converted - you work face-to-face with children and see them grow, develop and change before your eyes. There is no other stage in our lives that we absorb as much information as in the first few years and no other time that children develop as fast, or learn as much.

Yet, there are some stark findings which show just how much of a challenge we have got on our hands. Currently, six out of ten two-year-olds from the poorest families do not experience any formal early education, yet the participation rate in the wealthiest homes is around 72 per cent.

And recent research from the University of Bristol has found that nearly a quarter of mothers' first-time visits to an early years group were so off-putting that they did not return to that group. One in five mothers then became afraid of attending any group. While small scale, the study found that the most crucial factor for parents was not the location or cost of a nursery, but how they thought they would get on with the group.

So my challenge to you is: how can we make sure that the free early education really reaches the two-year-olds who need it? How can we get their parents to take up the offer, and how can we make sure we get the quality of that right so that it's really making a difference on the ground?

PLANNING FOR EXTRA PLACES

We will soon set out how we will identify the increased number of two-year-olds who will have free places by 2014. In the meantime, we are still consulting on our original commitment of free places for disadvantaged two-year-olds by 2013. We're proposing that families who would meet the criteria for free school meals, and all looked-after children, should benefit.

We also want the early education entitlement to be more flexible, so it can be taken from 7am to 7pm instead of the current 8am to 6pm, and spread across two days instead of the current three days.

I really value your input as you are the experts - please read the consultation and tell us what you think. Have we got the balance right, for example, between the flexibility that parents want, and the need to prioritise child development?

What's your local authority doing to try to increase the number of places for two-year-olds? We'd really like to hear your examples.

The new entitlement for two-year-olds is a tremendous opportunity for the childcare sector, creating over a quarter of a million new places nationally. The most important challenge for you now is to plan for the extra places needed in 2013. We published the number of eligible two-year-olds that we expect, for each local authority, by 2013, to help local authorities in their planning. This is an even greater challenge with the extra increase from 2014.

Thank you for all your hard work over the last year. I look forward to working together with you in 2012.

Wishing you and your families a peaceful and restful break over the festive period.

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