Idle toddlers at risk of heart disease

Linda Blackburne

Linda Blackburne on the opposition to the Government's plan to ease up on nursery space rules.

Children who spend all day in nurseries without playgrounds and return home to watch TV before going to bed will be the new generation of heart-disease sufferers.

Boys and girls as young as three and four show signs of incipient heart disease because they have so few opportunities for outdoor play, says the British Association for Early Childhood Education in its reply to the Department for Education and Employment's Government's consultation document on pre-school vouchers.

BAECE and a host of other under-fives groups have condemned Government proposals to scrap the premises regulations for maintained nursery schools and classes. They also oppose its relaxation of the Children Act which regulates space at private nurseries. The risk, as they see it, is that nurseries could be opened without playgrounds and with no statutory minimum for teaching space.

Some social services departments had been criticised for applying Children Act space recommendations too strictly. In 1993 the Department of Health issued a circular encouraging them to interpret the guidelines flexibly bearing in mind local circumstances.

In July this year ministers announced their intention to consult on a revised set of school premises regulations which would dispense with the statutory area standards for teaching space and recreation.

BAECE says: "More and more private nurseries are being set up within residential areas, often in terraced houses - and many children are in these settings for the whole of the working day. These children then go home, watch TV and go to bed with no opportunities for active play and exercise."

Cynthia James, who stepped down as BAECE's chair last week and is a retired early-years consultant, said some nurseries were already treating children like "battery hens" and any relaxation of the regulations could only make the lives of Nineties today's children worse.

John Woodward, managing director of Busy Bees which runs 26 private nurseries, is also unhappy at the Government's deregulation plans. He said: "There are people who are besotted with profit and not interested in the quality of care, and there are other people who have always wanted to work with children and have no understanding of the business side. You have these massive extremes. You can't not have regulations because people do the most ridiculous things. "

However, he said, there was a problem if someone wanted to set up a nursery school in an inner-city district. If no site could be found with an outdoor play area, should the children be deprived of nursery education?

All Busy Bees' nurseries had outdoor play areas, said Mr Woodward, but a potential site without a playground could be acceptable if it were next to a park or play area.

Other organisations opposing deregulation include the Association for County Councils and the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

The PLA says: "We do not believe that it is sensible or practical to have two different approaches, one for statutory provision and the other for provision in the independent sector. For all children, it is important that there are minimum standards relating to premises and sufficient space for each child to have the opportunity to achieve the desired learning outcomes."

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