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First steps into the real world

Peter Moss and Helen Penn outline their vision of an early-years service beyond 'a watered-down version of primary school'.

It is a common assumption, held by many teachers, educational administrators and politicians, that nursery education is a good thing, and that the quality early learning which nursery education provides gives children a first-rate foundation for starting school. Any enlightened Government, so the argument runs, would recognise its importanceand make it available to all three andfour-year-olds.

In our new book, Transforming Nursery Education, we try to unpick some of the myths surrounding nursery education. We argue that the system of nursery education that we practise in the UK - however erratically - is idiosyncratic and inappropriate to today's needs. The model of the small nursery class tacked on to a primary school, offering a short period of part-time education for a narrow age range of three and four-year-olds, is almost unique in Europe. It is only a recent construction of what nursery education might be.

Historically nursery education has had a variety of roots and taken a variety of forms and was offered both to younger and older children, often for longer hours than at present. For pioneers such as Robert Owen and Margaret McMillan, nursery schools were always intended as a service which combined education with care for the children of working mothers. A watershed occurred with the Plowden Report in 1967, which pronounced that nursery education should be part-time, for children over three, and should ignore non-educational needs such as providing care for children with working mothers - and so it has remained, pickled in a 30-year-old view of a world which no longer exists.

The fact that nursery education has mostly been provided for only a few hours a week has also determined what has been made available in the name of the curriculum and how it has been delivered. The promotion of health and well-being - arguably as necessary now for young children as it was in the 1930s - has vanished as an aim for nursery education. Healthy minds can apparently exist without healthy bodies. There is no room for food or rest and, in many cramped schoolyards, no room or time for exercise and movement either.

Because nursery education is, for most children who experience it, a brief adjunct to primary school, it has become blurred with that stage of education. Instead of being a separate and vibrant part of the education system with its own rationale and pedagogy, it has become an increasingly watered-down version of primary school - as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority document on "desirable outcomes" for five-year-olds so graphically illustrates.

Many local authorities, in setting up "early-years units" - an amalgam of reception class and nursery class - have blurred the distinction still further. The situation is compounded by an early compulsory school age (only two other European countries start children at primary school before six), and for many children a two-year period between three and five years marked by frequent change and discontinuity, rather than the three-year period of nursery or kindergarten schooling found in most other European countries.

The services we have for young children today in Britain, divided between the welfare and education system, are no more the consequence of regular and reflective review than our compulsory school age. In Transforming Nursery Education we argue the need to go back to square one, and rethink the concept of nursery education - what it should offer in the light of the complex, changing and inter-related needs of today's families.

We think it should be a holistic service, meeting a range of needs - not only learning, but care, socialisation, health and support. It should be a comprehensive service, equally available to all children from birth to six and their families, and able to accommodate children of working parents, as well as stressed and vulnerable children. It should be the first stage of the education system, distinct from primary schooling (which would start at six) and the pressures of the national curriculum - a transformed nursery education should have its own pedagogy and curriculum. Finally, it should be a diverse service, encompassing a range of centre-based services (some located in schools but others not) and organised family day-care schemes, with a range of providers.

We are proposing radical change - the transformation of nursery education into a comprehensive, integrated and coherent early childhood service covering the first six years of life. And we are convinced that change is possible, given the will to make it happen. In Transforming Nursery Education, we show how change can be brought about over a 10-year transition period through a series of specific steps, which include: * a national early childhood services policy, a clearly articulated statement about the aims and objectives for a comprehensive early childhood service; * new legislation - an Early Childhood Services Act - defining the new service as the first stage of the education system but with a duty to provide care and support as well as education, moving compulsory school age to six and superseding the Education Reform Act and the Children Act; * an end to the current dysfunctional split between education and welfare with the Department for Education and Employment and local education authorities made responsible for the new early childhoodservice; * a fundamental reorganisation of training, pay and conditions; a new graduate qualification of "early childhood teacher", specialising in work with children from birth to six and in meeting the full range of needs of these children and their families: care, health and support as well as education.

These changes require a proper funding system, combining income-related parental contributions for children attending more than a basic number of "free" hours and public funding through the education budget. Our 10-year target for public funding for the new service would be 20 per cent of public expenditure on education, currently equivalent to about 1 per cent of GDP. At today's prices, this would mean around Pounds 6.5 billion, instead of the Pounds 2-2.5bn we spend now on services for children under six.

We claim to be radical, but in fact our ideas are shared by others in this country and abroad. Some other European countries have adopted the model of an integrated early childhood service. In the UK, some local authorities are trying, against the odds, to work towards this vision. We give examples of the kind of practice we would like to see, including instances of nurseries which do provide a service for children under and over three, with a community- based catchment, offering care and education to all local children whether or not their parents are in work and whether or not their families are under strain.

The furore over vouchers is a distraction, owing more to vouchers being the only show in town at present than to their relevance to the main issues that need addressing. The voucher system is merely a method of payment and says nothing about the kind of service which is desirable or how it might be delivered. As a general election approaches, we must hope for a more relevant and wider-ranging debate about the meaning of nursery education and, more generally, the needs of young children and their families.

Transforming Nursery Education by Peter Moss and Helen Penn is published by Paul Chapman, Pounds 12.95. Peter Moss is a senior research officer at Thomas Coram Research Unit; Helen Penn is a research fellow in the Child Development and Learning Group, both at the Institute of Education, University of London

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