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Nursery business;Opinion

If education were just a business the clever money would be going into nurseries. To an extent it has. Private nurseries have grown rapidly, especially in the cities. It started before the previous Government's voucher scheme and it has benefited as well from the attention given to all pre-fives by this Government.

The interest begins with the pre-school year, which all children are now guaranteed. But the Government's social policy means that attention turns also to the youngest, partly because care allows more mothers to work and partly because the link between early stimulus and later achievement is well established. So some children begin life beyond home as young as three months.

The Government wants to map the development of provision, especially for four year olds. But they also hope that the pledge of extending universal provision to three year olds can be implemented as soon as possible. So the Scottish Office funded research into costs (page four) has already made recommendations to local authorities about the rates they should pay private providers. The usual difficulty of comparing like with like is illustrated by a claim from the private sector that its costs have been underestimated because some schools refused to disclose staff salaries.

It is known that some ownersteacherscarers do not take much for themselves, and their rates to staff are hardly generous either. Frugality, stinginess or inability to make a good living may all be factors. But an accurate assessment of real costs of provision in each sector is important, since a balance has to be struck between what local authorities offer for places and what private providers might hope to secure. A national picture has yet to emerge.

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