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Bebe talk

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 Republique. 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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