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Designed ready for extinction;Dalton's diary

The coypu is a large aquatic South American rodent imported to this country to be bred for its fur. Unfortunately it escaped into the wild, adapted to local conditions and started eating Norfolk. This in turn led to the evolution of an entirely new breed, the Coypu Extermination Officer, a strange creature whose ultimate success could only lead to his own demise. Clearly all sensible CEOs would keep a breeding pair of coypu in their back gardens, passing them off to the neighbours as really butch guinea-pigs.

Fascinating, you say, or at least I hope you do, but what has this got to do with education?

The pre-school playgroup movement was also originally programmed to bring about its own extinction. It started in the early Sixties as an off-shoot of the National Housewives' Register. The original objective was to campaign for universal state-funded nursery education. Playgroups, set up in people's homes and village halls, were seen as an interim self-help measure. Now the Government is providing funding for four-year-olds, with the promise of the same for three-year-olds within a couple of years, more and more of playgroups' potential customers are being offered places in school-based nursery classes. So the playgroup movement must be celebrating its success? Well, strangely enough it is hopping mad.

Playgroups have become so much more than a poor second best to "proper" nursery education. They have a distinct character of their own, particularly when they are managed and staffed by parents. Since the Children Act and the nursery vouchers scheme, standards of training and provision have improved enormously. I am uncomfortable with the change of name - playgroups have become pre-schools and the Pre-School Learning Alliance has replaced the good old PPA in the dash for nursery voucher cash - but the principles of learning through play and support for children and parents remain. And if they close down now as the four-year-olds leave for school, where are the three-year-olds to go?

The national concern over the loss of playgroups is reflected in this village. As a governor, I can see the sense of moving from our present policy of admitting children in the term they become five, to having one intake at the beginning of the academic year. The local playgroups feel threatened.

There are divided loyalties, with some of our governors involved with playgroups, some playgroup parents keen to see their own children start school as soon as possible.

Fortunately, the decision does not lie with the school and the governors. Our local authority, like all others, is charged with providing funded half-time places for all four-year-olds from September. They must do this in co-operation with existing providers and we await the results of negotiations. My money is on peace in Northern Ireland.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the east Midlands

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