By Tony Hudson
One hundred and forty thousand disadvantaged two-year-olds could gain access to 15 hours a week of free early education, according to new government plans.
Nick Clegg and children's minister Sarah Teather set out the plans, which will make the free entitlement more flexible and include children looked after by the state, in a consultation today.
They will adopt the criteria currently used for free school meals to determine who qualifies for the expansion.
Currently, all 152 local authorities in England offer between ten and 15 hours to a targeted number of children. The new plans would increase the number eligible for free early education from 20,000 to 140,000.
"I want us to give every child the best possible start – so free education for toddlers from the most disadvantaged homes will now be a right and not a privilege", the deputy prime minister said.
The plans will extend early education already available to three- and four-year-olds to disadvantaged two-year-olds from September 2013. It follows a commitment made by Mr Clegg in October 2010 to extend free early education.
Fifteen trials testing the approaches of the expansion are being funded by the Department of Education in 18 local authorities. These trials will run until March 2012.
Ms Teather added: "High quality early education is the key to making a difference early on in a child's life. It's crucial for their healthy development and means they're not falling behind before they have even started primary school.
"We want more children to be able to access their full early education entitlement. Too often, the most disadvantaged children don't get what they are entitled to. It's important we target early education at those who stand to benefit the most."