COUNCILLORS have approved the spending of more than £700,000 on providing hundreds of extra free childcare places for eligible families.
Most of the funding for the project – which will see an expansion in care available to two-year-olds – comes in the form of a £500,000 Government grant, with the remainder from council funds.
The eligibility criteria includes those two-year-olds who are in Darlington Borough Council care, those who qualify for free school meals and families receiving working tax credits, with annual gross earnings of no more than £16,190 a year.
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Children with special educational needs also qualify.
The Department for Education (DfE) has set the council a target of providing 634 places by September, more than doubling the number of places previously available.
A mapping exercise highlighted ‘hot spots’ within the borough where the number of eligible two-year-olds far exceeds the number of childcare places on offer.
They include the Eastbourne, Lascelles, Park East, North Road and Pierremont wards.
The expansion of free childcare in Darlington comes against a backdrop of a sharp increase in the number of eligible children.
A headcount taken at the start of the last academic year showed the number of eligible two-year-olds accessing a place had more than doubled from 80 to 187. By spring, the figure had increased to 213 children.
Councillor Cyndi Hughes, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “Every parent knows that good quality childcare can give their child a valuable head start, even before their little one starts school.
“I believe that no child should miss out on this chance just because of which part of the borough they live in or how much their parents earn.
“For this reason, even more places are being made available for eligible two-year- olds to take up this incredibly important opportunity.”
The DfE recently announced that the eligibility criteria would be expanded for the coming academic year, to include two-year-olds on disability living allowance and those who have been adopted.
Since September last year, local authorities have had a legal obligation to provide free early education to disadvantaged children.
The project received unanimous backing at a recent meeting of the council’s cabinet.
A report prepared for members said that existing childcare providers will be encouraged to be part of the extended scheme.
Increased capacity for the academic year starting in September would need to be met by schools, new childminders and the small number of private day nurseries and playgroups that may be able to accommodate a slight increase in capacity.
The onus is on parents to show their child’s entitlement.