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Free nursery places: the new nightmare

"DID you hear David Blunkett's promised free places to three-year-olds?"

Snatching me from the verge of sleep, my husband's question sizzled through my brain. "No, you're joking!"

A happy vision filled my mind. Our pre-school lifted from the mire of underfunding to the promised land of well-paid staff, and fabulous new resources. I could hardly believe it.

"But I expect he means new nursery places."

The happy vision disintegrated. I lay awake wrestling with anxiety. Pre schools provide the gold dust of social capital for marginalised communities. Funding for four-year-olds was intended to bring increased security and a level of parental choice to hard-pressed groups. The incongruous outcome, however, was that the pre-school sector has been turned into a battleground.

The landscape is littered with closed playgroups as primary schools pillage the four-year-olds for the money they bring with them. Additionally, the Government has attempted to use the pre-school sector to deliver a schizophrenic range of policies, while keeping a Scrooge-like clutch on resources.

Vouchers for fours were introduced by the Conservatives at the end of their free-market experiment. By this time state primary schools were starving. They pounced on this new source of revenue like famished dogs. Using their heavyweight position as gatekeepers to educational opportunity, they set up new nursery classes and changed their admissions policies to channel the money in their direction. Anxious parents, intimidated by state school power, transferred their valuable four-year-olds. Playgroups started to close.

New Labour was delighted to discover the pre-school movement. Here was a national network providing extremely cost-effective services and fielding a low level of political and institutional influence. Opportunistically, they perceived that pre-schools could be forced to deliver the New Labour agenda without the Government having to realise its full cost.

The pre-schools were landed not only with early-years education, but also with providing affordable childcare, facilitating the working families tax credit and counselling the excluded. All of this on an insecure funding base. Just to make sure hat the pre-schools got the picture, early-years education and childcare partnerships were established.

Targets were set to needle the pre-schools into developing their provisions to support the new poor; the low-paid, working (and often single) mother. Education and childcare were superimposed upon one another.

Tempting morsels of money were offered, not to create places of learning, but to get mothers back to work. The burden of ill-conceived responsibilities upon pre-schools and the rising clamour of state school interest caused many to falter. More playgroups closed.

The next election encroaches upon the Government and time for some beefing up on policy. Such a shame to lose all this low-paid and volunteer labour, thinks some bright spark in the Downing Street think-tank. After all we don't want them to close, we just want them on the cheap. Margaret Hodge will sort out their anarchic tendency towards child-centredness. A sprinkling of funded three-year-old places and a grant for those facing closure will do it.

This attitude masks contempt versus convenience. The pre-schools could be so useful, if only they didn't hanker after the education of four-year-olds.

But the real conflict is between opposing ideologies of how children should best be educated. The pre-schools spring from a tradition in which the child comes first, play is the vehicle for learning and mothers raise their own children.

The current administration believes that children are subordinate to the economic imperative, early formal learning will give us a head start over our international competitors and mothers are parasites unless they pull their weight in the workplace.

Universal funding grudgingly offered with strings attached could finish off my pre-school and many others. The raging hunger of the state system for more resources could see our three and four-year-olds disappearing into the giant maw.

A peace settlement depends upon the Government starting to value the model of child rearing which the pre-schools represent. If that happens, I shall wake up and eat David Blunkett's hat.

Ruth Chenoweth is vice-chair of Little Rainbows community pre-school, in Windsor, Berkshire

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