But is it nursery?

In this week's TES we devote space to two rival approaches to the education of children under five: one with vouchers and one without; one with built-in care and one without. Which one is more likely to provide the right answers? And which, indeed, the choice and diversity vital at this stage? In the next column and on page 3 are details of Labour's early-years blueprint, of which more later. In our Primary and Pre-school section (TES2, page 16), we print a guide to the Government's nursery voucher scheme which is due to go national next April 1.

The most pressing concern in the light of the pilots' experience is the amount of time occupied by voucher-pushing, especially where parents are unaware that the paper coupons are now essential currency. That is why primary heads everywhere are preoccupied with the bureaucracy to come, sometimes to the exclusion of more potent curricular issues.

But with LEA help the administrative problems will almost certainly settle down once teething troubles have been overcome. More serious are the examples of playgroups forced out of business as local authorities expand their own provision and compete for premises, and the needs of voucherless three-year olds are sacrificed to those of the luckier four-year-olds.

This looks like an unforeseen consequence of the voucher scheme (unforeseen by the Government, anyway) but it means less choice, rather than more, unless the local authority takes the sort of strategic lead on under-fives provision that the Audit Commission has recommended.

The most urgent alarm bells, however, have to sound out over the great army of four-year-olds who will sweep into primary school reception classes next spring. The reality is, as Gillian Pugh of the National Children's Bureau pointed outlast week, that "this is an initiative that is more about four-year-olds starting school early than about nursery education."

Eighty-five per cent of four-year-olds are already in school. In April, they will be arriving in reception classes as soon as they reach their birthday, often swelling numbers over 30, but schools will have no extra funds to start new nursery classes, where that means building work, extra space, taking on or training new staff. Whether they will be working towards the Government's "desirable outcomes" or the key stage 1 curriculum remains a blurred issue, although some authorities may seize the opportunity to lengthen the primary years of summer-born children. Good for primary schooling perhaps, but it isn't nursery education, and nor does it provide a head start for the growing numbers who arrive at school without verbal or social skills or any idea of discipline.

The debate about violent behaviour in schools keeps bringing us back to the need for intervention in the vital years between 0 and 5. A recent pamphlet from the Institute of Economic Affairs began a backlash against the integration of education and care services on the grounds that you had to choose between the needs of children and mothers, but the truth is that you can't meet one without the other. Labour's ambitious plans are welcome because at last they aim to do just that. Integrating services demands a tough approach, but it will pay dividends.

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