Priced out of the market?

Ann Roberts

Ann Roberts wonders if her small nursery school will survive vouchers

For 30 years I have run a nursery school in our village hall. As I prepared for this term my mind turned to Gillian Shephard's voucher scheme for nursery education. Would it apply to my school? After all, how do you define a nursery school and how will playgroups qualify? The more I thought about it, the more questions I had.

Mine is what might be considered a traditional nursery school, small and in a rural area of Kent. It began quite informally when a friend had a fifth child and couldn't find a nursery school.

We met in her house, but called ourselves a school because we gave the children a structured morning. We based our fees on the ability of parents to pay us out of Family Allowance - at that time we charged Pounds 9 a term.

Since then we have expanded to a roll of about 20; we meet in the village hall, and although my fees have gone up, they are considerably less than the Pounds 1,100 a year value of Mrs Shephard's vouchers.

I stress its informal beginnings because, in my experience, most nursery schools begin in the same ad hoc way. In fact since we opened, many such schools have sprung up in the area, some lasting only as long as the mothers running them had children of the right age. Others have closed because the local child population has dropped while some have established themselves securely.

So my first question is when is a nursery school a nursery school? Many more will open once vouchers are available, but how will they be identified and will any official checks be made on them?

In theory, under present arrangements, we are supposed to be registered and inspected every year. In reality, inspections occur every two or three years because there is such a wide field to cover. Playgroups and childminders have to be registered too - will an already inadequate inspection system cope with the extra load?

Perhaps I should increase my fees to Pounds 1,100 (a good little earner)? Of course I am told that in big areas like London, fees are already well above that, but how could we justify it?

I've only recently discovered that children will need to be four to qualify for a voucher which will cover three terms before statutory school age starts. We used to have lots of four-year-olds, but as the years have gone by and primary schools have admitted younger children, we have had to lower our starting age to two-and-a-half. This is when nursery education begins, whatever the Government says or does.

Often this is the first time children have left the safety and love of their homes so our first task is to help them socialise with their peers; we also aim to teach them a discipline of mind and body because that is so helpful to learning.

It is the most satisfying and rewarding job to see shy children arrive and then leave us feeling confident, able to recognise and write their alphabet and numbers, and often starting to read - besides all the painting, stencilling, cutting, jigsaws and other activities they will have done with us.

This is the age at which children are at their most receptive; they soak up everything they are taught. I believe every child should have this opportunity. But, above all, we must remember they are young and in need of lots of individual attention, love and cuddles.

What I fear is that the voucher system will drive these tiny children into bigger and more expensive schools, and that small schools like mine run in village halls will disappear - and with it the individual attention and closeness that only a small school can give.

These are merely worries rather than realities at present. With the new term there are more new young children and for me, at least, a return to the most enjoyable and rewarding job in the world.

Ann Roberts runs a nursery school near Edenbridge in Kent

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