If you want an organisation which boosts personal development, enhances community cohesion and invests in the nation's future, you can't do much better than a community-run playgroup. Visit almost any village hall or school annexe on a term-time morning and between the play dough and the sand tray you will find stories that would gladden a government minister's heart.
Parents who have started off organising a teddy bears' picnic in the local park have gone on to training and employment as playleaders and nursery nurses. Parenting skills have been gently developed in a supportive environment; disruptive children have become part of the group; people from all sorts of backgrounds have worked and played with each other and each other's children.
But the Government's policies have had mixed effects on these centres of endeavour. While there are groups which have thrived under the recent round of expansion in pre-school education, others are struggling to cope with the changes and many have closed down. The Scottish Pre-school Play Association (SPPA), which supports and lobbies on behalf of playgroups, toddler groups and under-fives groups in Scotland, estimates that 200 playgroups have closed over the past two years.
"It is good that local authority provision is increasing," says Mary Wales, the SPPA's group services manager, "but in some areas it is reducing choice, and we're braced for what is going to happen next. The introduction of funding for three-year-olds will have an even bigger impact."
As the pre-school sector expands, a polarisation of playgroups is becoming apparent. There are those which have entered into partnership with the local authority to provide the pre-school provision for their area; and others have seen many of "their" four-year-olds scooped up by a local authority nursery and are struggling to remain viable with small numbers of three year olds on their books.
At an SPPA roadshow for playgroups in Dumfries this month the collective message to central government and local authorities came over loud and clear. "They are passionate about the need for community ownership of pre-school provision," says Martha Simpson, the SPPA's chief executive. "They see themselves as part of education and they want the Government to listen to them."
The problems facing playgroups are as various as the groups themselves, but the common theme is uncertainty. "The voluntary sector is a very fragile sector," says Jane Carswell, the co-ordinator of the Small and Tall playgroup in Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway. "It's so dependent on the Government of the day. We've got good support now, but how long will it last? Promises from education departments tend to be shortlived."
Community-run playgroups have been running happily along the same lines for 30 years, but now to survive they must change, often radically. These organisations are run by volunteers, who fit in committee meetings around jobs and family, yet a "commissioned" playgroup (one which has been contracted by the local authority) will now have to deal with curriculum enhancement, transition documents, staff training and HMI inspection.
The system of parent-run committees is creaking under the strain. Support is available, both from the SPPA and from local authorities, but how much, if any, support a particular playgroup receives depends on where it is.
The Scottish Executive's policy on pre-school education has been interpreted slightly differently in every local authority and the level of funding, support, training and resources on offer to playgroups depends entirely on their postcode.
"When you get these national recommendations, it's a very grey area," says Yvonne Crombie, childcare partnership co-ordinator for Fife Council, "the boundaries can be moved."
In Fife, the council's chief executive is sympathetic to playgroups and the council has recently pledged pound;100,000 for playleader training and another pound;30,000 to increase the hours of SPPA support workers. A working party has been set up to improve communication with playgroups and private sector nurseries, and leaflets and local advertisements have been published to ensure that parents can make an informed choice for their child.
However, in large parts of Scotland, the SPPA has no local staff because the local authority does not support the organisation. Playgroups can be left to struggle on pretty much alone.
"In 1996, we had 150 part-time fieldworkers," says Martha Simpson. "Now we have the equivalent of 35. There is pressure on groups to do more and more and yet there is no extra funding for the national association."
Martha Simpson is particularly bitter that while national childcare organisations in other parts of the UK have received more money to help them through this period of change - pound;1 million over the past 18 months to help pre-school groups in England - the Scottish organisations have had no extra help.
"We feel we've been running very hard to keep still. It is demanding working with so many local authorities working in so many different ways.
"I think we are at a very crucial time, both as an organisation and for the pre-school groups themselves. The groups fear that local authorities are just using them as spare bricks, with the long-term intention being 100 per cent statutory provision.
"And what will happen in a couple of years' time when the pre-school grants to local authorities are no longer ring-fenced?" Many groups have risen to the difficult challenges the Government has presented them with. It is particularly in rural areas that community-run playgroups look likely to survive. "In rural areas local authority nurseries are just not financially viable, so it's the poor old voluntary sector that gets to do it," says Jane Carswell. "In Dumfries and Galloway the council is very supportive. I think they genuinely want us, because they can't do it themselves."
Port William, a farming community near Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, is one village that feels it has benefited from the changes. The people put their faith in the playgroup three years ago and won the contract to provide pre-school education for their children.
Elizabeth Penrose is both a mother and an employee of the playgroup. She is delighted with the way the playgroup is going. Good support and training is on offer from the council and it has an excellent relationship with the headteacher in the school where the playgroup meets. "There is better support for the children, more playleaders and books everywhere," she says.
"It used to be one playleader and two mums, and the children went to playgroup and maybe brought home a painting every so often. Now we're assessing the children every day. They know their colours, they can recognise numbers, they do sorting and matching. We're even introducing the first P1 reading books."
Although the playgroup enjoys a good relationship with the current headteacher, it has nothing in writing from the council that quarantees its use of the school, visits from support staff or its very existence.
In Fife, Yvonne Crombie says: "We are looking at providing a detailed contract between the local authority and each playgroup and private sector partners. But it's true, at the moment the groups are in a strange situation. They are providing the pre-school education but they don't have access to the in-service training, the resources or the educational psychologists which the council nurseries have."
"It is a funny sort of partnership," says Mary Wales, "when the local authority holds all the purse strings."
The SPPA conference "Everything to play for" will be held on September 15-16 at the St Francis Centre, Gorbals, Glasgow. Further details: 0141 221 4148
* Kelty Playgroup has been running in the Fife village's community centre for 19 years, but it may not keep going much longer.
"We used to have six sessions a week with 20 kids a session," says Janet Young, secretary of the management committee. "Now we're down to 13 children in total. After the summer we're going to be down to five or six and at that level we couldn't keep going."
Janet Young is in no doubt what has caused the downturn in the playgroup's fortunes. While it charges a reasonable pound;2 per two-and-a-half-hour session, the local authority nursery up the road charges a nominal pound;1 a week. "There are a lot of single parents and for them pound;6 a week compared to pound;1 is a big difference."
There is still a groundswell of support for the playgroup. One of the fathers recently raised pound;220 in sponsorship for walking the West Highland Way and another father, a chef, made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and sold them in aid of the playgroup.
"It is much-needed money," says Janet Young. "We are running at a shortfall every week and we're very much struggling to pay wages."
This is just the sort of situation Martha Simpson, chief executive of the Scottish Pre-school Play Association, is talking about when she identifies a "social inclusion issue" for non-commissioned playgroups. Parental choice may be enshrined in the Government's pre-school policy, but what choice is there for the badly off when one kind of group offers a free place and the other takes a bite out of the housekeeping money?
Martha Simpson feels that Government policy is too heavily weighted towards financial rather than child-centred considerations.
Yvonne Crombie, childcare co-ordinator for Fife, is hopeful that Kelty Playgroup will get over this difficult patch. "Sometimes it really depends on who's involved in running a playgroup and whether they're willing to apply for grants and so on. But there's lots of support around. If they want to go for it, they won't be alone.
"It's a lovely playgroup," she adds. "Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, visited it last year. He was there for about two hours. He baked a cake and planted a tree and made a sticky picture. The kids loved him."
* Tucked away behind the immaculate public park of Moffat, in Dumfires and Galloway, is an old Air Training Corps building. Since August last year this has been the home of Moffat Small and Tall, a childcare organisation which combines playgroup, out-of-school care for five to 12-year-olds, and day care for babies and toddlers.
It has grown out of a fairly typical community-run playgroup which used to meet in the local scout hut and now has 16 employees and 189 children registered for the various services. Small and Tall is still managed by a local committee, but its membership has expanded to suit the greater breadth of services on offer.
"We wanted the committee to be a good reflection of the outside community," says Jane Carswell, co-ordinator of the group. "The local councillor is a member and we have a treasurer with expertise in the financial area.
"We hope that people will stick with us a bit longer than the year or so that people serve on traditional playgroup committees."
Small and Tall received help from "various parts" of Dumfries and Galloway Council and bought their premises for pound;23,000, then refurbished it with the help of National Lottery and other funding. "Moffat is short of public buildings and whatever happens to the group in the future, that building will be there for the community," says Jane Carswell.
Perhaps the only downside to the changes is the comparative lack of parent involvement with their children's pre-school care and education, but Jane Carswell thinks it was inevitable. "I remember taking my own children to playgroup and being told that if no one came forward to help out, there wouldn't be a playgroup that morning.
"We don't push parents any more, but they are always welcome to come in and help, and we try to involve parents at the babies and toddlers stage.
"Parents in the past were so involved they felt it was their playgroup and they owned it. Playgroup has a crucial role in personal development. You can lose a lot of confidence when you have small children, and I know it was helpful to me in getting past the mother bit and moving on. Hopefully we can still do that and find roles for parents. It is difficult to get the balance."