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'Leave compulsory schooling until six'

The start of compulsory schooling in Britain should be postponed until the age of six in order to create a distinctive stage of early-childhood education which would have value in its own right, according to one of the country's leading specialists.

Peter Moss, the London-based co-ordinator of the European Childcare Network, believes such a move is essential to strengthen the standing of a part of education which is seen merely as "an appendage of schools".

He called last week for a White Paper and legislation on early- childhood services which would set out definitions, objectives, structures, management and funding. He suggested a spending target of 1 per cent of gross domestic product over 10 years, which would currently amount to Pounds 7 billion and represent a core of public funds and parental fees. The UK's 400,000 pre-five workers, including child-minders and those in playgroups and day care, should be retrained.

"We have never actually had a White Paper on early childhood," he said, "although we've had one on virtually everything else including dangerous dogs." Mr Moss, was addressing a Glasgow conference on pre-fives services aimed at the Scottish education authorities which take over next April. He outlined what he termed his own vision for early-childhood services which he said required a fundamental review rather than the "irrelevant" voucher scheme.

He called the Government's initiative a piecemeal approach to pre-school provision and described it as "limited, part-time, and short-term: it is predicated on the assumption that children should be kept at home and its function is to channel youngsters into primary school."

Mr Moss was particularly critical of those who saw nursery education as "a springboard for future goals" in later schooling or later life. He added: "It may be that early education makes for a more nimble old-age pensioner or an outstanding chief executive or improves your chances of getting a first-class university degree. I don't know and I don't care. Early-childhood education should be valued in its own right to fulfil present potential and present needs." It was about care, support and socialisation for young children as well as learning, he stressed.

Reform, Mr Moss said, required "planned and broad provision from nought to six" to replace what he called the mess of child care for working parents, day care for children in need and nursery education for some three and four year-olds. It should not be left to the free play of the market or be just "more of the same".

Mr Moss's views will be developed in a forthcoming book, Transforming Nursery Education, which he has co-written with Helen Penn of the Institute of Education at the University of London. She is a former assistant director for pre-fives in Strathclyde Region who had a turbulent time there when she ran into union trouble over the council's efforts to reorganise early-years provision along similar lines to those suggested by Mr Moss.

An echo of those days emerged after Mr Moss's speech when a former primary head from Ayrshire attacked the MossPenn vision. New structures and the creation of a separate stage of education would not help with the transfer of children from nursery to primary schools, Agnes Davies told Mr Moss.

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