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Playgroup conference applauds pre-5 plans

The head of the Government task force which is investigating ways of expanding pre-school education has given an assurance that existing playgroups will not be allowed to suffer as a result of any decision to invest in nursery classes.

Michael Richardson, under-secretary of state at the Department for Education, also hinted that there would be more money and help with training for playgroups.

Although Mr Richardson refused to be specific about the details, he left 800 delegates at the Pre-School Playgroups Association's (PPA) annual conference in Scarborough with the clear impression he understood their problems and wanted to help.

His short speech offered few clues as to how the Government is thinking on the maelstrom swirling round the nation's young children but he was brave enough to confront a bombardment of tough questions from delegates queuing for the microphones.

Nursery classes were free of charge but parents had to pay for playgroup places for their four-year-old children, said one delegate. Where was the choice for parents? More money should be given to playgroups, she argued.

Mr Richardson said: "The intention of the new initiative (the Government's "cast-iron commitment" to start expanding education for the under-fives before the next general election) is to make choice more of a reality. I didn't say money would not be going to playgroups."

At the last sentence the delegates erupted into spontaneous expressions of triumph, clearly interpreting these words as meaning there would be money. Later, however, in response to a question about playgroups being forced to close, leaving three-year-olds in the lurch, because four-year-olds were going into nursery classes, Mr Richardson said: "We have to decide how to target any new money."

Another delegate reiterated the problem of choice and money. Children should not be forced, for financial reasons, to take free nursery places if their parents wanted them to stay in private playgroups, she said. Mr Richardson replied: "I can give them that assurance wholeheartedly."

A third delegate, who had recently studied for the Diploma in Playgroup Practice (DPP), was "horrified" that an infant-school head she had met had never heard of the DPP, nor National Vocational Qualifications. Mr Richardson assured her that the Government would work with the PPA to promote the diploma.

However, the big question - how to stop playgroups closing as more and more four-year-olds take free nursery places, and as a consequence, how best to educate three-year-olds - appears to be impossible to answer adequately with limited public money.

Margaret Lochrie, the PPA's chief executive, said that if parents want their children to stay in a playgroup instead of taking a free nursery place, they should be able to postpone it. Many cannot postpone the places and therefore lose them. The solution, says Mrs Lochrie, is to level the playing field.

Mrs Lochrie and other delegates were amazed and pleased at the strength of Mr Richardson's support for playgroups. One wondered whether ministers would be as surprised as they had been to hear his messages of support.

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