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Ministers undecided on nursery syllabus

By 2002 the Government expects an extra 190,000 three-year-olds to be in nurseries or playgroups, but what they will be taught there remains a thorny area of education policy.

Margaret Hodge, the minister responsible for early-years education, has already set up a review of the guidance that is used to determine whether nursery schools or classes are providing adequate education in order to qualify for state funding for four-year-olds.

In the main, early-years specialists are suggesting a switch in emphasis from the more academic standards such as the development of pre-reading skills (learning that print is read from left to right) to encouraging greater speaking and listening.

The arrival from April of thousands of children up to 12 months younger than in the past in nurseries or playgroups, makes the review even more pressing.

"We are not talking about providing something less rigorous. What is important is that the guidance sets out what is appropriate for the age group," Ms Hodge told The TES.

"It is important that young children are brought to the point where they are ready to learn and that means they are able to listen, to speak and to concentrate."

The minister is careful to avoid suggesting there could be a less formal approach required in early- years education. The Government sets great store by its standards agenda which has at its heart a more systematic approach to reading, writing and numeracy - schools are being expected to introduce a literacy hour even for children in reception class.

However, the argument raging over whether standards are higher in countries where formal education does not begin until six or later is not unfamiliar to Mrs Hodge. During her time on the Commons education select committee, it was one of the areas MPs examined in some detail.

Right now, she says there cannot be changes without ministers being certain of research findings. Professor Kathy Sylva in Oxford is undertaking a longitudinal study and her results will inform policy.

There are also more practical areas to tackle. Mrs Hodge appears confident the Government can achieve its target of providing nursery or pre-school places for 66 per cent of three-year-olds (where parents want it) by 2002.

Work has speeded up since the days of her predecessor, Alan Howarth. A path is being beaten through the qualifications jungle to allow more credits to be transferable between child health and early-years education certificates.

There is even a willingness to attempt to rationalise the inspection and regulation of different settings. Under the Children's Act, private nurseries are registered by local authority social services. But the nurseries and playgroups that benefit from Government funding for four-year-olds, and from April for three-year-olds, are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education against the desirable learning outcomes (ie what is expected of the age group).

The DFEE also has a substantial role in SureStart, a programme to target families with children under three in deprived areas.

For Mrs Hodge, the raft of policies covering child health, childcare and early-years education, are a mark of Labour's commitment to bringing services together to improve the lot of families.

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