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Doing what's best for the children

Hartcliffe Nursery Centre, in the middle of a council estate on the outskirts of Bristol, seems at first sight an unlikely model for an educational revolution.

But it was cited as an example of good practice in the Labour Party's plans for the education of Britain's under-fives last week because of its unusual combination of social services and educational provision on the same site.

The slightly ramshackle, one-storey building includes, on one side, a day nursery for 40 children up to the age of two, and, next door, a 120-place nursery school for two- to five-year-olds. Also on site are parent-toddler groups and a family learning group.

The day at the centre begins with a cooked breakfast at 8.15. A hot lunch at midday is followed by a light meal in the afternoon and the centre closes around six.

Staff say the hours are aimed at providing the kind of care the parents and their children need. "The most important thing is that we're doing what's best for the children," says the nursery school's headteacher Lynne James.

Overcrowding and poor diet are chronic on the estate and there is a high incidence of single-parent and low-income families. Asthma and glue ear are two of the problems linked with poor living conditions mentioned by the centre's staff. More than 80 per cent of children at the centre are entitled to free meals.

Close co-operation between the two sides of the centre is vital. "Having social services next door means we can talk to them quickly about problems without having to pick up the phone," says Mrs James.

Staff say the progression from the day nursery to the school reduces some of the stress for children who may already have faced a family crisis of some kind. "It helps the children to be confident," says Margaret Parker, who has worked on both sides of the centre. "The child is familiar with the building and all the faces."

The commitment of the nursery school staff is obvious and the facilities are impressive: a technology area has three computers, and there is a music room and a woodwork area. Outside is a pond, a garden and newly-planted trees provided by a local environmental group.

Bristol City Council is planning to merge the two sides of the centre further and add more services. It sees the benefits of a centre like Hartcliffe as being worth the cost, put at Pounds 366,405 a year for the nursery school - an average of Pounds 1,530 per pupil.

Staff at Hartcliffe see centres of this kind offering more hope than the nursery vouchers scheme. "I can't see how the school or the community are going to benefit from it," says Mrs James. "I can't see private nurseries springing up around here. People haven't got the money to top up the fees."

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