Do children have rights? And, if so, what are they? Thomas Jefferson held "that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".
I suppose he meant women, too. What about children? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, now ratified by many countries, recognises children's right to education. Ratifying nations should "make primary education compulsory and available free to all" with the grand hope of achieving "the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world".
Sadly, developed countries like the UK, with the experience of more than a century of compulsory, free elementary education, know that it isn't so easy to create a literate and learning society. The National Commission on Education reported recently that: "Fewer than 1 per cent of school-leavers and adults can be described as illiterate, but almost 15 per cent have limited literacy skills. An even larger proportion (20 per cent) of adults have limited numeracy skills. In short, basic skills are insufficient to meet the demands for many occupations."
One of the most important reasons for this regrettable state of affairs has been our failure to develop systematic, high-quality, pre-school education. And there is still a long way to go before we can guarantee a good nursery education for every three and four-year-old. But a strong and effective alliance of committed organisations and individuals, and a sequence of powerful and persuasive reports - the Rumbold report of 1990; the 1993 National Commission's Learning to Succeed and the RSA's Start Right report of 1994, for example - have helped all political parties to understand the importance of early learning. The Government has acted to provide vouchers to enable all four-year-olds whose parents wish it to have pre-school education by 1997. So far, so good.
The RSA report sought to ask and answer three questions. Does early learning matter? What is the nature of good practice? How can a universal entitlement to good early learning be provided? While I would welcome further rigorous research into the first and second of these, I think the answers are clear enough and well documented. They are also exemplified in good nursery schools and other pre-school services in the UK and overseas. We know how important good early learning is for children, and for society as a whole, and we know how to do it well.
So, what's the next question? Obviously, how to ensure good early learning for all children from the age of three. In the words of the United Nations Convention, it must be "available free to all". That requires three things: adequate public resources, effective delivery of those resources to the providers of good pre-school education, and the children's attendance. There should be no real problem with the first in developed countries like the UK. Once the appropriate priority for early learning is established, the funds will be forthcoming. And that is starting to happen. While there will, no doubt, be battles to come, I think the war is won.
The delivery of public resources to the providers of pre-school education is more contentious. The RSA report questioned "whether the resources should be delivered directly to the providers of the service (for example, nursery schools) through the channel of local authority grants, or to the users of the service (parents) in the form of credits or vouchers". And it added: "There is much to be said for the latter." The Government has decided to experiment with this new approach and we must wait and see how it works. It is not a matter of principle. In this respect, Alexander Pope was right: "For forms of government let fools contest; whate'er is best administered is best."
No. The real problem today is the third - getting the children to school. It is a paradox, but not a contradiction, for the UN Convention to refer to the right to compulsory primary education. For the sad truth is that, unless schooling is both free and compulsory, some children will not attend. And among these will be the children who could gain most benefit from good education. Presumably that is why full-time education from the age of five has been compulsory in the UK since 1876. But, if we come to believe that good pre-school education is at least as important as primary and secondary education (and I do), should we not consider making it compulsory also?
The 1944 Education Act laid a responsibility on parents to ensure that their children receive an adequate education - either at home or in school. "It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him (sic) to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise" (section 36). I should like to see that extended to cover the pre-school education of three and four-year-olds. How otherwise are we to reach and help the children of inadequate parents?
The RSA's Start Right conference, to be held at London's Barbican centre on September 20-22, will bring together speakers and contributors from around the world to address such issues. I hope we shall not spend too much time rehearsing the old questions, but co-operate to define the agenda for action for those concerned with early learning in the 21st century. What are the priorities for research? Is the curriculum clearly enough defined (and agreed the world over)? How should we train and sustain early-years teachers? How is an effective partnership with parents maintained? What arrangements assure good quality? How can we continue to learn from each other's good practice? Do children have rights - and, if so, what are they?
Sir Christopher Ball is director of learning at the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and author of Start Right: the importance of early learning. Conference details can be obtained from the education office, RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ. Tel: 0171 930 5115. Fax: 0171 839 5805.