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Recognition of early years takes its time;Under-Fives;Millennium Edition

Politicians have murmured sweet nothings about nursery schools for most of this century, says Stephanie Northen

It cannot be long," said Grace Owen in 1928, "before nursery schools for children between two and five years of age are the accepted instrument for securing adequate nurture for very young children."

If the honorary secretary of the Nursery School Association were alive today, her patience would be wearing thin. Over the century many women, from the pioneering McMillan sisters, to the feminists of the Sixties, and the volunteers fundraising for their impoverished playgroups, have picked up the torch of nursery education. Again and again they have seen it snuffed out or disdained by the politicians when recession or ideology get in the way.

In 1900, nearly half of English three and four-year-olds were being "educated". Many were perched miserably on wooden benches, chanting the alphabet. However, instead of improving their lot, the Government in 1905 took away parents' right to send them to school.

By 1930, only 13 per cent of three and four-year-olds had a place. This had slumped to 7 per cent of all under-fives by 1965. And last year, draft figures from the National Children's Bureau revealed that 29 per cent of three and four-year-olds in England were in some sort of state nursery education, usually part-time.

Of the rest, a few stay at home while the majority are scattered between playgroups, childminders and private nurseries, a fragmented system served by poorly-paid women with a variety of qualifications or none.

Throughout the century, politicians periodically jumped on the nursery bandwagon, though they rarely wanted to pay the musicians. In 1918 and in Butler's 1944 Education Act, local authorities were encouraged - but not made - to provide nursery education. In 1967, Bridget Plowden's report for Harold Wilson's government backed part-time expansion, but targeted it at the under-privileged in an early version of education action zones.

In 1972, Margaret Thatcher notoriously promised free state nursery education for all three and four-year-olds within 10 years. It did not happen. In 1994, John Major's "cast-iron commitment" to expand nursery education was quickly tarnished when it was backed by vouchers for pound;1,100, which threatened the future of playgroups and forced four-year-olds into school reception classes.

Government reluctance to commit itself over the years has meant most of the work has been done by pioneers such as the McMillan sisters (see box). Their south London venture, opened in 1914, was Britain's first real nursery, and was "open-air" in an attempt to combat illnesses. Diseases such as diphtheria, typhoid and whooping cough were rife, so the spur was improving health (80 per cent of the McMillans' first intake had rickets), but their education and general well-being were also regarded as crucial.

The sisters' determination to cater for the whole child and for parents and the community is echoed today in New Labour's "joined-up" thinking on the early years.

The ideas of Friedrich Froebel, the educationist who opened Germany's first kindergarten in 1836, became dominant. Froebel regarded play as the route to learning: "Play is never trivial, but serious and deeply significant."

His influence is apparent today. In 1996, for example, the Welsh curriculum authority said: "Play is all about perseverance, attending to detail, learning and concentrating - characteristics usually associated with work. Play is work and work is play for the young child."

Formal learning was anathema to the McMillans and those who came after. Nature, music, learning to share, and Grace Owen's "careless gaiety and bubbling fun" were all more important. However, she, like the many early-years specialists who have protested recently against formal targets for the under-fives, was quick to insist: "This does not mean that the child is not learning."

Froebel thought nurseries should provide experiences and materials to help children find out about the world and themselves. Maria Montessori, whose Montessori Method was published in Britain in 1912, championed the need for children to have freedom and choice in what they do. It is thanks to them, and to the later work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, that toddlers who like splashing in the kitchen sink or ripping apart a dandelion are not seen as destructive but as engaged in discovering their world.

It is also thanks to them that good nurseries regard Wendy Houses, puzzles, sand-pits and climbing frames as standard equipment, just as they regard painting, modelling, music and cooking as standard activities.

Progress towards nursery education over the century has been inextricably linked with the progress of women's rights. The attitude that the mother of a young child should be only that still lurks in the nation's subconscious and has often justified government reluctance to loosen the apron strings.

In 1945, after expanding nurseries during the war so that women could dig for victory, ministers declared that "the proper place for a child under two is at home".

Now the pendulum has swung again. In 1997, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced that childcare should be "an integral part of our economic policy". And in 1998, education minister Estelle Morris said: "Good quality nursery education can offer young children a vital start in life."

Perhaps Grace Owen's long wait is over.

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