An acquaintance of mine, a chief education officer, said to me that in one area of her local authority there was over-provision for under- fives. Since I believe that there is chronic and damaging under-provision for under-fives everywhere, I was interested in unpacking her remark. What kind of assumptions was she making when she talked of "over-provision"?
I am familiar with the area she describes. It is a large peripheral council estate, with a high male unemployment level. I have been involved in a project there and have met the providers - the nursery school and class, the playgroup, the private nurseries, the family centre and childminders. I have spent time with the teachers and other workers, and have met some of the parents.
I would agree with the CEO that the provision is under-used. All the nursery sessions are part-time, and there are always vacancies at the afternoon sessions. Some of the children, particularly those from the Muslim community, do not attend regularly.
The 60-place nursery school is one of those where tidying up begins at 11am; the nursery is pristine and every child is decanted out of the building by 11.45am. During the break the staff sit solemnly in the staffroom; the queue of mothers and children builds up outside, and eventually, not a minute early, at 1.15pm someone unlocks the door again to let the children in for the afternoon session.
If you go there in October the nursery is half empty, with one of the rooms closed off. This is because the nursery admits children gradually, so gradually that the other room is not brought into use until almost the end of the first term.
Since this authority also admits children aged four on a termly basis, the same slow and inefficient process is repeated each term; some children are barely in the nursery before they are out of it again.
The 40-place family centre nearby takes children referred from the social work department. There is a long and urgent waiting list of referrals, so much so that every case is reviewed after three months, and if the child's circumstances are judged to have improved, the child is required to cede the place to the next referral. But the referrals take time to organise and there is often a gap between one child leaving and the next coming. Children are bussed in from other areas.
The family centre staff feel under pressure, since they are dealing with difficult children who no sooner settle than they are out. Some of the mothers are also told by the social workers that they must attend the family centre with their child. When they get there neither the staff nor the mother knows what to do.
There is a high rate of staff sickness at the family centre, so the officer in charge has reduced still further the hours the centre is open. It takes fewer children and closes altogether for one day a week, offering a "drop-in" session instead. Sometimes mothers come to this and sometimes not. The children gradually arrive after 9.30 or l0am and have left by 3pm. I counted 14 children and seven staff at the busiest time of day on this last visit.
The 50-place private nursery, by contrast, is a lively, busy place open from 8am-6pm throughout the year. It is a workplace nursery which services the local hospital. It has an enthusiastic and committed officer in charge, but apart from the subsidised rent for the premises, it has to be financially self-sufficient. It charges Pounds 80 per week, which is affordable only by those families where two parents are in work earning a reasonable salary. No one who lives on the council estate uses the nursery.
The local playgroup operates in the church hall for two hours on Mondays and Wednesday mornings. The hall is cluttered with old chairs and tables which have to be set to one side by the playgroup leader and her helper. The hall floor is splintery and has to be covered with mats. The registration officer also insists that the big, old-fashioned radiators are covered up, and the playgroup is having a jumble sale to raise the money for a grille - in the meantime, it cannot use that part of the room.
The playgroup is a small sleepy affair, registered for 16 children although only 14 come. Since the church is half way up a hill some distance from the estate, few of the estate mothers use it; the playgroup catchment is drawn from the families who use the church.
There are two childminders on the estate, and their business is irregular. Since they charge the going rate of Pounds 50 per week it is not surprising that they are not used by this low-income community.
Local statistics, invariably out of date, suggest that there are at least 400 children under five on the estate. If you count the nursery school, and the neighbouring 26-place nursery class as offering two places a day, that is 172 places. The private nursery, the playgroup, the family centre, and the childminders offer another 122 places between them.
Looking at these figures, by the standards of the local authority, there is over-provision. In other areas of the authority there are very few facilities, whereas this area is generously provided for, and the education authority must be seen to distribute its resources fairly throughout the borough.
But if you look at the provision from the point of view of the children and families who use it, then it is grossly inadequate. None of the private and voluntary places serves the local community, and they are mostly too expensive to use. The family centre is stupidly organised - there seems no other way to describe a policy which concentrates so many distraught children together, and then, as soon as they begin to settle, ejects them.
The nursery school is an unbelievably wasted resource. It has the best premises and is well-equipped. Yet for a large part of the day and a large part of the year the premises are shut, or partly shut; the parents have never been asked whether this arrangement suits them, although the number of empty places suggests there are problems.
There is not a single place in this area for a mother who wants to work but is a low-wage earner. There are no places for children under three. Apart from the private nursery, children only attend nursery for a short while, often for less than a year, scarcely long enough to form friendships or to develop coherent ways of learning.
I would want to make radical changes. I would find ways of canvassing local families to find out more about their own preferences, expectations and aspirations. I would change the school-entry conditions, so that, as in Scotland, children only went to school in the year in which they were five, with one entry in September. I would expect each child to be in the nursery for two years, as happens in most other European countries.
The nursery school would offer full-time places, and offer an extended day scheme, so that some places could be used by working parents, and some by children referred by social services. There would be extra staff for these vulnerable children, so that they could begin to learn and settle in a consistent and planned environment.
I would reopen the family centre for children under three, to be used on whatever basis families wanted, as a part-time or full-time cr che, or as a drop-in. I would offer the playgroup staff posts in the family centre, if they wanted them, rather than allowing them to struggle on in the church hall.
I would ask the headteacher to take on the responsibility for planning the curriculum across all local provision, whether education or social work, public or private. Since the provision is grossly inadequate to meet the needs of the 400 children on the estate, I would plan for more, with all the existing staff and representatives of the area.
Why does such a take-it-or-leave-it attitude permeate under-fives provision while in every other sphere of its activity the local authority prides itself on consumer charters and "client satisfaction"? Why do we go on delivering services that were conceived more than 50 years ago and are clearly not appropriate to meet contemporary needs? How absurd to talk about "over-provision" when it is the chronic underfunding and poor professional practices of current provision which are the issues.
The CEO, when I queried her assumption about over-provision, said that she thought the problem was a culture of apathy on the estate. The nursery places were underused because parents could not be bothered to take their children. She was considering transferring resources to another more affluent part of the borough where, so far, there was no nursery provision. Helen Penn is senior research fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London.