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Extra earlies will run us ragged

Tell people you are a teacher, and they will probably congratulate you for doing a worthwhile and difficult job. Tell them you are the nursery teacher in a primary school, and they will probably ask you when you intend becoming a "proper" teacher.

Which never ceases to amaze me. Of all the age groups to teach, I think pre-school is the most demanding. So why do some teachers opt for that age group? Because the early years are also utterly fascinating and vitally important.

Very young children absorb enormous amounts of information as they gain experience of the world around them, and their enthusiasm can be inspiring. Get things right at this age and you set a child up for life. Provide a range of rich, stimulating experiences, and you can give a child a lifelong love of learning. The nursery is where everything starts, and we cannot afford to let it fail.

I had imagined the Government thought this way too, but recently there has been a development which I find rather worrying.

Because my school is in an exceptionally challenging and deprived area, my nursery class offers half-day sessions to 50 children rather than giving 25 full-time places. This gives twice the number a chance to experience the pleasures of pre-school education.

And I use the word education deliberately, for that is what we offer. My skilful nursery teacher and her assistant give the children high-quality learning experiences. Children cannot wait to get to school to try the many activities offered, the teacher carefully observing and recording each step they make and then using these observations to move them positively forward.

But now the Government is giving nursery children an "entitlement" of 15 hours a week - two-and-a-half more than most school nurseries offer. And parents can also choose which days they want their children to attend, meaning, we could be swamped on Tuesdays and have half a dozen on Wednesdays.

What's more, in future we will be funded for the hours we actually provide, so if we don't fall in line, we shall lose money.

But how do we squeeze those extra hours in? Do we keep the children later in the afternoons when the rest of the school has gone home? If a parent has children in the upper school, how will she feel about collecting her offspring at different times? Do we start before the main school opens? Do we have full-time children only and have them stay for lunch, buying additional staff to cover the lunchtime? If we do, who pays? And how will the nursery teacher set up for the afternoon session effectively?

Typically, there are more questions than answers and the thing simply has not been thought through. To try to get some answers, we attended a meeting held by our local authority, but information was decidedly patchy. Don't worry, we were told, there will be another meeting soon that will make everything clear, and some expert teachers will give practical advice on how it can all be organised effectively.

My teachers dutifully attended the second meeting, only to discover the experts mysteriously hadn't been able to come. I have some sympathy for the local authority and the "experts", though. They are undoubtedly as baffled as we are.

I have the teeniest suspicion that somebody in high office thought this might be a clever ploy to catch the working mum's vote. After all, nursery school is only child-minding, isn't it? The teachers only wander around watching children play, don't they? What does it matter if the kids attend at their parent's convenience and we slap on a few additional hours?

Well, it matters a great deal, actually.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email:

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