DESPITE THE fact that most people acknowledge the benefits of good child care and pre-school education, on both of which this Government has campaigned hard, some children are not receiving the benefits they should be entitled to.
By 2002 there should be a part-time place for all three-year-olds, to supplement the provision already being made for children in their pre-school year. Over the next three years pound;16 million will be poured into a development fund to ensure the necessary extra capacity for this age-group.
Local authorities are encouraged to set up an early years forum or similar body, where partnerships with parents will be forged. Failure to do so will result in loss of grant. The Scottish Office stresses the need for authorities to listen to what children and parents tell them about their needs and preferences. Glossy Government brochures in supermarkets state:
"Evidence suggests that a quality pre-school experience can bring a range of benefits, including a smoother transition into primary school and increased educational attainment."
So all sights are trained on the same target, yet sadly, as in all battles, there will be casualties. In this case the innocents caught in the crossfire are those four-year-olds who will not have been able to take up a pre-school education grant this session when they were eligible. They will now find themselves ineligible for free pre-school education because their birthday falls at the wrong time.
Local authorities claim provision is available for all or almost all children, and in response to an inquiry the Scottish Office claims that only a small minority have been excluded this year, mostly in rural locations.
In fact, not all the excluded live in isolated places and if an authority reports availability of places for between 95 and 99 per cent of four-year-olds, the number excluded still adds up significantly across the country.
The Scottish Office says that councils are urged to deal sympathetically with requests by families which have had no provision, and points out that money is available from the local government settlement to fund the pre-school year they have missed.
But these children become eligible for school and therefore attract no share of the pre-school money. Local authorities find themselves in the awkward position of wanting to do the best for all children in their area yet are committed to providing resources to match the targets set by the Scottish Office for the "eligible cohort" of children. What is being done for the others who become ineligible through age? Even a small minority cannot be ignored.
As a result of progress towards the Government's target, three-year-olds can profit from five terms of pre-school education before entering school, while a minority of four-year-olds are being expected to opt for entry to P1 having had none at all. Where is the justice in that?
Requests for pre-school places are being made because parents do not consider their children ready for school despite being ineligible for a free pre-school place. It is wrong to proclaim universal pre-school provision when a child's future is decided by the lottery of location.
Some local authorities will fund these places, some will attempt to and others will not try to find the money. There is no consistency. A spokesperson for one council advised that if the request was based solely on parental choice, then that council's policy would be to encourage the parent to send the child to school.
Another has issued an information leaflet which by implication does the same. Other options are to fund the pre-school place privately or keep the child at home. The former may not be affordable and the latter is illogical in view of Government policy on the benefits of nursery education.
These four-year-olds may cope with formal education, but that is not what they or their parents expect. Every child should be given the opportunity to achieve full potential. Being "forced" into the formal system prematurely will deny the child the very opportunities the Government's proposals seek to offer.
Research from the Scottish Examination Board in 1995 showed that "being one of the youngest pupils in a school year generally has a detrimental effect on performance throughout compulsory schooling". Teachers and classmates are also affected by pupils who are not able to keep up. Later costs incurred on behalf of such pupils could well outweigh any potential savings at the pre-school age.
The issue of parents wanting to defer entry to primary school will not go away. In years to come, when all four-and-a-half-year-olds have taken up their pre-school places from three onwards, many will be deemed ready for school, but many will not. After all, by law a child under five is not required to start school.
The policy-makers must confront this issue. The Scottish Office has indicated that the matter is likely to be debated by the new parliament. For many children that will be too late.
Amanda Cooper is a teacher with a three-year-old child.