Nursery providers urged to co-operate

Linda Blackburne

A paper on vouchers recommending that councils set up forums to discuss the expansion of nursery education is being circulated by the Department for Education and Employment.

The move will be welcomed by chief education officers, who have long advocated the partnership approach to the nursery voucher scheme, and by the Labour party, which will set up early-years forums to plan the education of four-year-olds, if it is elected next spring.

But critics will accuse the Government of being slow off the mark. Supporters of the partnership approach believe that if it had been recommended by the Government when it announced its voucher scheme in July 1995, playgroup closures in Norfolk might have been avoided.

The paper, by Carol Adams, Shropshire's county education officer, outlines the authority's 30 local forums which were set up by a seconded early years advisory teacher. The first meetings this term have been well attended.

Ms Adams said: "Providers, including heads and governors, are asked to consider what would be the best way to expand provision and meet the shortfall in their area. This means that if the governing body is keen to open a nursery, they are immediately confronted with the organisers of the playgroup next door.

"So far meetings have not been acrimonious, and providers have recognised the needs of all children in the area rather than the prospect of attracting more funding or pupils for their school."

The key to Shropshire's partnership policy is to expand education for four-year-olds not already in nurseries or playgroups but not to move them from one setting to another. The education of three-year-olds is also important to the county.

The paper says: "We did not want to admit young four-year-olds into reception classes, particularly since some rural schools have one class for the whole of key stage 1; we did not want to close playgroups; we did not want to close our own area nursery classes by moving children early to reception classes in neighbouring schools; we did not want to extend full-time schooling below our admissions age of four years, eight months; we did not want to exclude private providers from our partnership, recognising that they play an important role in the range of provision."

The circulation of Shropshire's paper follows recent comments by the education minister Robin Squire on the importance of partnership and the concerns about young four-year-olds in large reception classes.

Heather Du Quesnay, president of the Society of Education Officers and director of education for the London borough of Lambeth, said: "Many local education authorities are worried about whether a normal reception class is appropriate for these young children because in a nursery there are more favourable teacher-child ratios."

But she said there was a certain irony in the Government's recent preoccupation with partnerships because education officers had been talking about co-operation for a long time.

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