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Easy riders?

The DFEE is hoping a new booklet will encourage more nurseries. But early years experts say Building Blocks lacks depth and could attract people simply wanting to make a quick profit. Emma Burstall reports.

A new Department for Education and Employment booklet outlining the steps a potential provider must take to start up a nursery has come under fire from under-fives experts who say Building Blocks makes setting up sound easy, and may encourage the wrong type of provider.

The DFEE has received more than 2,200 requests for the booklet - published last month - which it hopes will stimulate a rapid growth in under-fives provision under the Government's voucher scheme, starting throughout England next April.

However, the department admits it has no idea whether any of the enquiries will result in new places. ""It is too early to say how many of the requests will lead to fruition. But the indications are very encouraging indeed, " says a spokeswoman.

Building Blocks begins by mapping out key provisions, including a safe and stimulating environment and employing sufficient, good quality staff. The 13-page guide also includes a paragraph on how to test the market and mentions registration, inspection, obtaining planning permission, recruitment, funding and vouchers.

It says providers wanting to take part in the voucher scheme will have to meet a number of conditions, including agreeing that the nursery education they provide for four-year-olds will work towards the desirable learning outcomes recommended by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA).

And they must agree to publish information about the education they offer, staffing numbers and their qualifications and training, and be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Inspections will normally happen, the booklet says, in the first year of entry to the scheme and every two to four years after that.

The guide also sets out what is required of different types of under-fives provision under the Children Act 1989, including the number of staff needed per child and the qualifications staff must have. They include: sessional daycare; full daycare; combined centres (providing daycare and nursery education in the same unit) and private nursery schools.

Early years specialists, however, say the guide lacks depth and may attract people who are more interested in making a quick profit than providing high-quality pre-school education. Moreover, some new providers may fall flat on their faces because Building Blocks fails to emphasise the risks involved in setting up.

Liz Wood, a lecturer in education at Exeter University, says providers in her area are concerned about increasing numbers of people setting up nurseries without establishing whether there was a market. At the the other extreme, there appeared to be little interest from potential providers in isolated, rural parts where need was greatest.

"The Government is assuming that the market will determine supply and demand. So far the signs are that competition may force some of the existing nurseries out of business or prevent the new ones getting off the ground - and do nothing where provision is poor," she says.

Vicky Hurst, a lecturer in early childhood education at Goldsmith's College, London, says Building Blocks thrusts pre-school education into the marketplace when nursery settings needed a guaranteed level of financial support.

"It is a jolly good idea to put money into under-fives provision but the money has been put in as if the Goverment were providing baked beans."

Susan Hay, chair of the Childcare and Education Association (CCA) which represents independent providers said the guide was superficial and "sloppy".

"It is aimed at the lowest common denominator of provider. To be really useful it should have drawn on experience and in-depth knowledge about diverse aspects of providing pre-school services as a business."

Ms Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks Ltd, which runs five private nurseries in Greater London, says it scarcely touches on the most challenging aspect - keeping a nursery full.

Before setting up, she says, people should undertake in-depth research into location and the type of service appropriate to the area. "You need to draw up a profile of potential clients. In one area you will be looking at a largely residential market, in another companies that might subsidise their staff. You cannot just copy a successful nursery elsewhere and hope to succeed."

Another crucial consideration was how to select the right staff, keep them motivated and provide in-service training. It was also important to keep them up to date with research on how young children learn and changes in the national curriculum.

She says the cost of paying and training staff made it difficult to make a profit from one nursery - you needed several. Her first two years in business were spent investing, not collecting revenue.

"Unless you have a vision of opening several nurseries you should hesitate. If a nursery closes because it cannot make a go of it, that is bad for the children. But there is no health warning in Building Blocks."

Ms Hay is unhappy that the DFEE has also failed to mention the difficulties of providing a flexible service. It costs more to cater for 50 part-time than 25 full-time children - yet the income is the same.

"You have to provide observations and records for every child and, of course, if you have 50 part-timers there are double the number of parents to deal with. Staff have to work extra hard so either you increase their wages and have to charge higher fees, or you run the risk of driving them into the ground. Building Blocks doesn't go into this. It merely duplicates a lot of the information you would get if you rang the local authority.

"Are we going to see nurseries coming into existence that purport to offer education and may go bankrupt after two years? Is this a good thing?" Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, says it is not so much that what is in the booklet is wrong - as what is left out. For instance, it does not make it clear that participation in the voucher scheme is optional. "Building Blocks doesn't intentionally mislead, but it does not give a lot of information. The main question the document begs is: Should there be public investment in getting these facilities off the ground?".

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