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Of doubt and disappointment

Sir John Cassels hopes against hope that the Government will do right by the under-fives.

In 1993 the National Commission on Education made a breakthrough on nursery education: it crystallised a national view that there should be universal availability of nursery education of high quality for all three and four-year-olds. John Major spoke of his ambition to see this; other political parties agreed. So everybody agrees that nursery education is "a good thing". But let's be clear why.

First, there is cast-iron evidence that children who do well in the early years of education are also likely to do well at 16, and that those who don't won't. Good nursery education helps good learning for a lifetime, and so it is important and, for some, vital.

Second, parents are the "first educators" of their children, but social trends are eroding their role. Poverty, unemployment, broken homes, poor accommodation and other disadvantages, all help to destroy the happy and encouraging home atmosphere in which children learn so quickly.

Third, it follows that the need for nursery education is getting more urgent and that it is needed most for children in areas of disadvantage. That is where priority should lie.

Making the first moves towards universal provision is not especially expensive. A lot of preparation - training of nursery teachers and also carers, adaptation of premises and so on - is needed. Only after several years can provision be universal and only then will the full annual cost arise.

All the more disappointing, then, that the Government has still not announced its plans properly, let alone started to provide new money. We are told we can expect the details shortly.

It's disappointing too that the Government's commitment seems to have retreated to provision for four-year-olds only. Universal provision for four-year-olds, though good, will be nothing like as good as universal provision for all those three and four-year-olds who need it most. And, of course, still further from being as good as provision for all three and four-year-olds, such as the French, the Belgians, the Italians and the Danes, among others, already enjoy.

If nursery education is to have its full value it must lead on naturally into the early years of primary school. That can't happen if five and six-year-olds are crowded into classrooms of 30 or more pupils.

How can a teacher give young children individual attention in those circumstances? All the more disappointing, then, that our primary classes have been getting bigger for 10 years and are to get bigger still in the year ahead. Classes for the very young should be cut down in size drastically.

Anxiously, I ask myself how a voucher scheme will be designed and managed to safeguard quality, to prevent new money leaking into already well-filled pockets and to meet the needs where they are greatest. But then I say to myself: wait till you see it. Let us hope that we shall be thrilled by the generosity, imagination and shrewdness which the Government will show. Let us hope.

Help = Sir John Cassels is director of the National Commission on Education

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