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DFE set to regulate early-years service

Linda Blackburne and Diane Hofkins on Government plans for quality control in the pre-school market.

The Government is looking for ways to regulate and inspect an expanded service for four-year-olds which includes private and voluntary as well as state-run education, and which provides "value for money" as well as quality, a paper circulated to Government departments reveals.

"There's clearly a political battle going on about whether it's child control or whether it's going to be part of a learning process," says Labour MP Steve Byers, who was sent the Department for Education paper.

The document says the Secretary of State is seeking ways to stimulate the voluntary and private sectors to enhance choice and diversity and is determined that parental preferences should be reflected. The DFE also wants to define good quality and may set out a curriculum "to ensure parity of quality and esteem" across all types of provision, including nursery classes, playgroups, private nurseries, and reception classes.

Mr Byers says the paper highlights the political problems which lie ahead for the Government, and the contradictions within its thinking. "Basically, if any parents are given a choice they will say they want a proper nursery unit. How you reconcile that with stimulating the private and voluntary sector I don't know. Parents recognise you can't do it on the cheap," he said.

Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-school Playgroups Association, said, "I think it is good thato they have given emphasis to parental choice. " Given that schools were free and playgroups were paid for by parents to the tune of Pounds 215 million a year, choice was compromised, she said.

The DFE paper, which was sent to the Inter-Departmental Consultative Group on Provision for Under-Fives, sets out the issues being considered by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's task force on early-years education, which has been consulting widely .

The Government is also looking at training and supply of staff; whether and how new pre-school places should be combined with day care; funding mechanisms; how to target the initial funding; and how to build on existing good practice.

With no money allocated in the Chancellor's latest Budget to fulfil John Major's pledge of a pre-school place, over time, for all four-year-olds, Steve Byers claims that new provision cannot begin to come on board before April 1996.

A Commons Education Select Committee report this week urges the Government to ensure all the expansion of pre-school education for four-year-old children meets high standards.

The 23-page report says: "While there should be diversity of provision, there should not be a wide range of standards. Wherever education is provided for this age group, it should meet high standards of quality which the Department for Education, in co-operation with local authorities and others, should define. Consideration needs to be given as to how these standards will be reached, and maintained."

The committee accepts that the education cannot be extended to all four-year-olds at once, and stresses that where choices have to be made provision should be focused on those areas in most need, such as inner cities and sparsely populated areas.

It did not undertake a full-scale inquiry into under-fives education because it wanted to produce a report in time for the DFE's New Year proposals on pre-schoolers. This week's report updates the committee's last report on the issue, produced in 1989. It cites the latest figures (1993), showing 55 per cent of children under five in the UK attending school. Between 1983 and 1993, the number of children under five in school increased by 25 per cent.

The report says that the continuing increase shows parents are becoming more in favour of pre-school education, and that quality is more important than ever.

"We believe that quality depends on a number of factors, including appropriately qualified staff, an adequate adult:child ratio, the right kind of facilities and resources, and a curriculum which will meet the needs of the children," says the report.

"Our predecessors noted that the adult:child ratio was particularly important, and stated that a ratio of 2:26 was acceptable, providing that one adult was a qualified nursery teacher. Ideally the other would be a qualified nursery nurse."

The committee is anxious that expansion avoids the primary curriculum being "pushed down" to four-year-olds in reception classes.

It is also concerned that current provision for pre-schoolers varies greatly in standards. It intends to keep the subject of under-fives under general review and will next examine the issue in its report on performance in city schools.

"Educational Provision for the Under Fives", House of Commons Education Committee, Paper No HC 74, Session 1994-95, costs Pounds 7.20 from HMSO bookshops.

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