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The high-rising fours with a lift from universal nursery places

Linda Blackburne traces the roots of under-fives schooling from Edwardian back-to-backs to modern high-rise estates, and a policy that gives places to every four-year-old whose parents want it.

Edinburgh's first nursery school, which opened in 1903, was born out of sheer need. It was a time of rickets and hardship. The Free Kindergarten served the Royal Mile, which runs from the Castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, an area in those days of shawled women and barefoot bairns. Many of the children were left to fend for themselves while their mothers went out to work to supplement the meagre family income. Often they went to school with their older brothers and sisters.

"As a consequence," according to The History of Edinburgh's Early Nursery Schools, published in 1975, the ordinary pupils suffered in their studies, while the tiny mites were cooped up in surroundings and were participants in an education totally unsuited to their tender minds."

A band of teachers were determined to do something and so the oldest nursery school in Scotland was opened on November 4, 92 years ago. Today Edinburgh, like any big city, still has its problems but they are more likely to be vandalism, drugs, air guns and youths roaring up and down the Craigmillar estate on motorcycles. But Lothian can boast a nursery place for every four-year-old who wants it and the ambition to provide a place for every three-year-old as well.

However, it is not only a strong nursery school history that has put Lothian in the top under-fives division but an unpopular two-year campaign to close five secondary schools. The clampdown on surplus places brought bitter hostilities but also Pounds 10 million of savings to boost the region's under-fives service.

The places for three and four-year-olds are for five mornings or afternoons a week in Lothian's 43 nursery schools and 146 nursery classes, run mostly by qualified teachers and nursery nurses. More than 60 per cent of the authority's 18,220 three and four-year-olds - a total of 11,186 - are in schools or classes. Since 1986, Lothian has increased provision by 25 per cent (2, 875 places), and new nursery classes are opening every month. A total of 14 classes have been opened in Lothian's rural districts, offering parents two mornings or afternoons a week. The aim is to increase the provision as soon as financially possible.

However, so far Lothian has only one nursery which is open from 8am to 6pm for 48 weeks of the year. This is Greengables, in the deprived Niddrie House area of Craigmillar. Jeannette Scholes, headteacher at Greengables for 19 years, though battling constantly against smashed windows, and, on one occasion, teenagers aiming an airgun at staff, has built up an impressive relationship with the local community.

Parents and friends of the 21-year-old nursery have built a wooden gate to stop children wandering out of the front door, are in the middle of building a path across the lawn and are soon to start work on low brick walls round the flowerbeds to keep toys and little feet off the plants.

The nursery has also started compiling profiles of the children in smart ringbinders which they can keep and look back on when they are adults. These will contain pictures of the children at different ages as well as information about their families and their progress at the nursery. A new building on the same site, paid for by urban aid funding, provides education and a host of other opportunities for adults. Parents can talk to a speech therapist or a social worker. They can join an exercise class or a cross-stitch lesson while their children are in the nursery or playroom.

In Pilton, another deprived area with high unemployment, the Craigroyston project, originally funded by the Dutch-based Bernard Van Leer Foundation, but now paid for by Lothian Region, shows parents how their children learn, in an effort to change negative attitudes towards parenting. Lothian also has two such under-fives centres and six cr ches attached to secondary schools so parents can attend their own classes while their children are being looked after.

In the Gorgie district, the thriving Westfield Court must take the prize for "nursery schools in bizarre locations". Children play and learn in rooms along a long corridor that forms the whole of the seventh floor of a 1953 block of flats. The architect was a 57-year-old bachelor who thought the children would sit in front of the huge blackboards he provided. It never was and still isn't an ideal place for a nursery - staff wear soft shoes to please the noise-sensitive residents in the flats below - but Westfield does the important job of assessing children with special needs who are referred there by the psychological service. Nine of the 66 children have special needs. In an ideal world, headteacher Eve Lyon, a firm believer in integration, would like more staff, music therapy to stimulate dialogue between the therapist and the child - and sound-proofing to improve the thorny relationship with residents.

The Government nursery voucher scheme is barely mentioned at Lothian's early years chalkface, although it has been hotly debated in the council chambers, as elsewhere in the country. Elizabeth Maginnis, the Labour chair of Lothian's education committee, calls the scheme "utterly perverse" because it penalises authorities with high levels of provision. She hopes a Labour general election victory will crush the voucher initiative and leave Lothian to continue to develop its service to young children.

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