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Pre-schooling is a top priority

Education is the key to national renewal the Social Justice Commission said this week. Susan Young analyses its report. Britain urgently needs a coherent, comprehensive approach to the needs of under-fives and young schoolchildren, says the commission, pointing out that existing services are scarce, fragmented and inequitable. "Under-fives provision is good for children, good for parents, and good for the economy and society," says the report, adding that although Government should take the lead in developing such a strategy, it should not have to provide every service itself.

It also contributes to another of the report's targets, that of literacy and numeracy targets for all seven-year-olds - with further checks at 11 and 14.

The commission endorses the target of the National Commission on Education that the UK should aim to provide 85 per cent of three-year-olds and 95 per cent of four-year-olds with pre-school education. However, it would like to achieve this in 2000, five years earlier than the NCE's target.

The commission stresses that such education must be first-rate, provided in small, tailor-made groups and not in rising-fives classes. However, it does not mind whether pre-schooling is done in playgroups, nursery classes, purpose-built schools or children's centres, providing there is proper adult input.

Acknowledging the problem already highlighted by Prime Minister John Major and his former education secretary John Patten, the commission says that good-quality care and education does not come cheap: estimates vary between the NCE's Pounds 860 million and the Department for Education's Pounds 1 billion a year. "So great is the importance of this investment, however, that we would make it one of the highest priorities for government investment over the next decade," says the report.

While noting the NCE's suggestion of transferring money from higher education, the commission offers the alternative idea of abolishing the married couple's allowance. This, it says, would free funds for primary education and nursery in particular. However, Mr Blair has already indicated his opposition to abolishing the allowance.

The Government should set training standards for all those working with young children, says the commission, suggesting it would be helpful to make child development a core component of all teacher training.

Yet they stress that not every adult working with children need be a fully-qualified teacher: classroom assistants might be augmented by "social grandparents" as children's services expand. While nursery schooling should be free for parents, the report says it is not feasible for child-care facilities to follow suit. Parents who can afford to, should pay.

They suggest there should be a common system for all registered services to ensure they meet nationally agreed standards.

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