The new rhetoric for early years education is "partnership". In the latest Department for Education and Employment circular local authorities are encouraged to blur the differences between playgroups, nursery schools and classes, family centres and day nurseries, private day nurseries, cr ches and so on.
Each local authority must provide a development plan showing how all four-year-olds can have nursery education, which must be provided "in partnership" with the private and voluntary sector.
Any attempt to have an overview is important, and the scrapping of the voucher scheme has been greeted with relief. But why, after all this time and after 18 years of working parties, task forces and policy reports, is part-time nursery education still the preferred model for expansion?
It is particularly ironic in view of another key policy initiative, welfare to work. Reducing the benefits bill by encouraging families on benefits - particularly single mothers - to go out to work is regarded as a central plank of economic policy. But where are young children to go while their mothers are at work? Must they wait until they are four, and then go into part-time nursery education?
Are young children still expected to be shuffled incessantly between childminder and playgroup, private nursery, part-time nursery education and after-school club? The early years may be important in theory, but our present situation offers neither consistency nor security for children, while responsible parents must tear their hair out trying to make suitable arrangements to cover working hours.
It is not only children who are devalued by these policy inconsistencies. So are the staff who work with them. Most provision is still in the private and voluntary sector, where wages and conditions of service are generally far worse than in the public sector.
Before the election, the Daily Mail pointed out that if a minimum wage was introduced, many nursery workers in the private sector were likely to lose their jobs, since their pay was frequently below suggested minimum standards. The article featured a group of nursery workers earning Pounds 2 an hour. With a minimum wage this nursery would no longer have been financially viable. Are these the partnership circumstances in which we want children to receive nursery education?
Perhaps the group of children, parents and workers who are the most vulnerable, and who stand to gain least from the new policies, are those in social service day nurseries and family centres. In my new book, Comparing Nurseries, I contrast the experiences of three-year-old children and the staff who care for and educate them in publicly-funded day nurseries in Spain, Italy and the UK.
In the local authorities I investigated in Spain and Italy the nurseries are full-time for children under three, including babies and are regarded as the first stage of the education system. They cater for 8 per cent and 40 per cent of the age group respectively. Children have two years of full-time nursery education, covering 90 to 95 per cent of the age group, before starting school at six. The children experience a minimum of disruption and their teachers, both for under-threes and over-threes, are well-trained and have secure working conditions.
The children are not forced to attend different kinds of establishment according to whether or not their parents work, or whether or not they are wealthy. The children from all social classes mix happily. The three-year-olds I observed were bright, lively, confident, well-fed and happy.
By contrast in the UK, under the terms of the 1989 Children Act, the only publicly-funded day nurseries are provided by social services departments for children in need, and cater for approximately 1 per cent of under fives. Many of these have changed their name to family centres, and despite being nominally open all day, only offer part-time provision if mother comes too.
The day nurseries in my UK sample were run-down and depressed and served depressed communities. The contrast between the daily experiences of these three-year-olds and their Spanish and Italian counterparts was truly shocking.
The children in these nurseries looked woebegone and were often in poor health and many of the parents were depressed men and women. The staff had few expectations that the children or their parents might ever achieve anything, and it was certainly not on the agenda for the parents to be in work.
In the UK the publicly-funded day nurseries exist only for the most deprived children and instead of being part of the education system, they generally have no links with it. Unlike the Spanish and Italian nurseries which were social melting pots, the day nurseries in the UK reflected inequalities between rich and poor.
As Professor Jack Tizard notably said, a service for the poor is a poor service. The general conception of what a nursery is and does and who it is for cannot but shape its practice and the UK day nurseries I describe were miserable, constricting places.
A more coherent approach, which reconciles the inconsistent objectives of part-time nursery education for all four-year-olds, the welfare-to-work programmes for families on benefits, and the obligation under the Children Act to provide separate provision for vulnerable children, may resolve some of the difficulties.
But it is hard to see how, without more radical intervention, and without more money, "partnership" proposals will solve very much or provide a more just and equitable system for staff and parents, and better times for children. Let us hope that the Labour party will live up to expectations and provide what is necessary.
Helen Penn is Senior Research Fellow in the Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, London University. Comparing Nurseries has just been published by Paul Chapman