All recent major reports on education in the early years have called for more high-quality flexible provision. In 70 towns and cities around the country, combined nursery centres have shown themselves to be extremely good at catering for the holistic needs of urban communities. CNCs are funded by both local authority education and social services departments and it is now recognised that this form of integrated care and education should be expanded.
But where are these innovative centres that are held in such esteem by the experts? Unfortunately, neither the Department for Education and Employment nor the Department of Health keep any national records of them. Yet for the past 24 years combined nursery centres such as Hillfields in Coventry, Pen Green in Corby, and Dorothy Gardner in London have been striving to turn integrated provision into reality.
CNCs have provided an integrated service for children and their families. They have a tradition of encouraging active partnership with parents as well as of coordinating all of those education and social services agencies responsible for young children and their families. They have pioneered and developed creative methods in child care and education and they have achieved this largely through establishing continuity in their relationships with, and their planning of the experiences for, the children in their care.
CNCs have created effective long-term partnerships with parents. They have provided a range of support services to parents that have included group sessions focused on issues related to parenting, toy libraries and even adult education.
They have been open for extended hours each day throughout the year and the centres have been providing early education to the very children who most benefit from it. These are children who, in other areas, are still often the least likely to receive it. Some of the children who attend CNCs have been those defined by the Children Act as "in need" - those who have special educational needs, and children from families under stress.
However, CNCs are open to all children because all children are seen as part of their communities. The centres are staffed by a multi-professional team of early-years staff - teachers, nursery nurses, speech therapists, social workers and so on - who have, between them, in-depth knowledge of children's learning and development. Over the years, the innovative work of these centres has attracted many visitors from this country and abroad.
Our CNCs provide a vision for the future of early-years services in this country. So why is it that, in the context of the current debate, these centres have not been seen, or promoted in this light? One answer may be that many remain unaware of their existence, another is that they are regarded as expensive. Of course, they are more expensive than some of the non-educational (and sometimes non-caring) alternatives.
But should we accept so easily that the education and care of three and four-year-olds (and indeed the under-threes) is worth less than the non-statutory post-16 education? Costs of Pounds 3,000 and above are accepted as common for post-16 students for such courses as A-levels.
We would not regard as adequate any service for older children that cost the public purse as little as Pounds 13 a year as claimed by some voluntary-sector early-years providers. Nor would it be deemed acceptable to provide a service for them that was run by volunteers for short periods in conditions that varied across the country. But this is exactly what has been proposed for very young children.
There is a general agreement that we need to expand integrated and combined provision to ensure that more children and parents gain access to pre-school centres. Yet, ironically, the implementation of the proposed voucher scheme is likely to curtail plans for new CNCs and may even endanger existing centres.
The current plans for pre-school expansion assume a major increase in the number of places available in the private and voluntary sectors. Yet they are mistaken in their belief that such an expansion would be sufficient to meet the needs of all those four-year-olds whose parents wish them to attend. This may be the case in affluent areas where parents can afford to top up the voucher value, but the private and voluntary sectors are unlikely to be able to provide places in areas where parents are unable to make this contribution. Yet these are the very areas where children will most benefit from high-quality early education, and where imaginative and committed local authorities have developed the CNCs.
These authorities will find themselves short of funds to maintain their existing service if, as it is feared, the voucher scheme leads to money actually being withdrawn from local councils to fund the vouchers. The scheme will simply result in a massive redistribution of resources from those most in need to those already able to afford alternatives.
Working with urban families under stress while ensuring high educational standards is a complex task and the Pounds 1,100 voucher is not enough. Investment in the early years makes good economic sense, although it is a long-term investment. Increasing the numbers without a corresponding increase in quality is unlikely to prove productive. The voucher system is estimated to cost more than Pounds 730 million. It is not the best use of resources.
One of the immediate effects of the implementation of the voucher scheme will be to increase the segregation of children. Children who are deemed to be most in need will continue to be provided for largely by the statutory care sector, which will have fewer resources.
Those children who are not placed in the most in need category (a category itself determined by purely economic criteria), will be left to the the private and voluntary sectors.
The inevitable concentration upon four-year-olds will also create problems for achieving continuity with children's early stages of development and learning.
There is an acknowledged need for a massive expansion of high quality combined provision. It is essential that we recognise the contradictory nature of the current proposals and recognise that the benefits that combined nursery centres have to offer are substantial. It is a rational and effective basis upon which to expand.
Iram Siraj-Blatchford is senior lecturer in early childhood education at the Institute of Education, University of London and president of the National Association of Nursery Centres. Bernadette Duffy is head of Dorothy Gardner Nursery Centre, London and chair of NANC.