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Play with purpose;Leading Article;Opinion

THE DECISION to extend the remit of the Office for Standards in Education to include nurseries, playgroups and childminders is a bold move - and a positive one. Of course the fearsome figure of Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead - implacably opposed to "child-centred education" - looms over the sandpits and paddling pools of the debate. But the fact is that small children need both care and education - preferably in the same package.

The division between social services day care and nursery education has always been bureaucratic and artificial - more a case of warring local authority empires than because care and education can be separated in any meaningful sense. The best pre-school arrangements offer both together - as do the best parents and childminders. When a small child is sploshing in the bath discussing with an adult whether a beaker is "full" or "empty", care and education are seamlessly entwined; as with reading a story (literacy), deciding how to share nine biscuits among three children (numeracy), or playing I Spy on a journey (phonics).

This type of educational input, especially among children looked after by childminders, is highly desirable. No one, surely, is advocating a regime where three-year-olds are drilled in the three Rs. In French nursery schools, children from the age of two follow a structured programme of learning and play which prepares them for school - and is based on a sound understanding of child development. We would do well to follow suit.

The uncomfortable fact in this country is that the more deprived the child, the more likely it is to be experiencing daycare with no educational element - in an understaffed nursery or plonked in front of the minder's television with a dummy in its mouth. These are the children whose parents and carers, however loving, may have little idea of how to stimulate them intellectually.

There is evidence that during the first two or three years of life a child not only learns very quickly, but needs to learn as much as possible. During this period, the brain lays down the basic wiring which will enable it to grasp ideas effectively. Inadequate stimulation makes for a less-developed brain which learns more slowly. OFSTED's key task, in monitoring pre-school education, is to reduce the number of five-year-olds who already lag behind the rest.

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