Do we seriously believe that all our under-fives should have access to + education? Or do we hanker after the golden days of the 1950s when, it seems, + every child stayed at home until the age of five with a devoted mother, going + on picnics, listening to Children's Hour, and helping to weigh out the flour, + butter and eggs on baking day.The truth is that we British have always been + deeply ambivalent about pre-school education - unlike the French, who offer all+ their children a properly structured nursery course, from the age of + two-and-a-half until the age of six, in a nationwide system of Ecoles + Maternelles.The French make no bones about it: nursery school is for learning + how to learn, for socialisation, and to teach every child to be a good citizen + of the Rpublique. The Ecole Maternelle does not exist to make the lives of + working parents easier, and it is for everyone - not just the under-privileged + whose parents are not up to the job.But we in the UK instinctively distrust the+ idea of too much "socialisation" carried out by the state - even if it makes + the primary school teacher's job much easier. And we also persistently confuse + early education with social services daycare, clinging to the erroneous belief + that only the children from deprived backgrounds really need full-time + pre-school education. This is in spite of the fact that business is booming in + the private nursery sector, as well-heeled middle-class parents compete to get + their children onto the first rung of the ladder of advancement. We need to + think more clearly, without cynicism or sentimentality, about the importance of+ learning before the age of five. And the Government is now showing every sign + of doing so. In a country where there is little tradition of taking early + education seriously, it is heartening that those local education authorities + which are making the effort to provide a good start for their under-fives are + to be rewarded. Extra money released to local authorities by lifting the cap on+ spending could jack up our ramshackle system to a consistent level where at + least all four-year-olds got a reasonable deal. But how the local authorities + decide to use the cash - especially those which currently seem to have little + commitment to pre-school education - will be critical.In fact, it is clear that+ the all-embracing French model will not necessarily do for us; we value + individuality and community too much - hence the runaway success of local + playgroups, especially in rural areas where there is little or no LEA + provision. We have made a start on drawing these disparate services into a + coherent common framework, so that we can be reasonably sure that every child + has a similar start. But it is counter-productive to overburden volunteers in + village playgroups, such as the one described by Patricia Rowan (TES2, page + 9), with oppressive forms and tick boxes in the effort to pull them into the + system. Playgroups, however good, will nearly always be a substitute for a + well-run community nursery school or class, staffed by fully-trained paid + workers, which involves parents to the full and has close links with the local + primary school.This is not to argue that four-year-olds should be in reception + classes in primary schools. In some areas, the nursery voucher scheme was + clearly used by certain schools as a self-serving manoeuvre to drum up more + pupils and the money which went with them - and not in the best interests of + young children who need small classes and specialised teaching. In France, + after all, full-time primary education does not begin until the age of six.But + when it does start, given the thorough early grounding, progress is normally + extremely rapid.Here, we need to guard against our tendency to tolerate a + poorly funded and socially divisive set of ad hoc arrangements. Whatever the + needs of disadvantaged families, single parents, working mothers or the + economy, we should focus on what is good for children. All the evidence + demonstrates that, no matter what their background, they develop best if they + have access to educational toys and books, facilities for outdoor play, other + children of their own age, and a consistent and sympathetic approach from + well-trained adults which includes more educational content as they grow + older.This is what the Government should be working towards. If we focus on a + high-quality framework which genuinely meets the needs of children rather than + adults, the rest will follow.
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