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Starting right

Labour deserves praise for its record on early years so far, says Gillian Pugh - but there is still a long way to go

In 1994, at a conference about primary education in the new millennium, I was asked to describe my "vision" for early childhood services.I envisaged a year 2010 in which every child between birth and the age of six would have access to an early childhood centre. Each centre would form part of a flexible network of services for their families and be linked to a child health centre.

These early childhood centres would have a range of facilities for parents, including discussion groups about bringing up children and access to adult education and training. Every centre would provide continuity for children from as young as a few months old till they started school at six. A curriculum, based on each child's needs as an active learner, would be delivered by high quality and well-trained staff. Britain, I concluded, would then finally have become a child-friendly society.

A summary of that vision was published in The TES, and in recent months I have been surprised at the number of educationists I have met who have the faded cutting on their desks. They, like me, have been considering an important question: how well are we doing five years into a new Labour government?

In many respects progress is remarkable. Five years ago, we could not have imagined children and families would be so near the top of the political agenda, nor that there would have been a blizzard of initiatives, backed by considerable extra funding.

The promise of nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, the childcare strategy with its funding for daycare places, neighbourhood nurseries and after-school activities, and the 500 Sure Start schemes - which support disadvantaged families with children under three - mean that the Cinderella of education, early years, is now on her way to the ball.

Progress has also been made in bridging the divide between "education" and "care". Responsibility for all services for children under eight now lies with the Department for Education and Skills; a single inspection service for all early-years services has been established at the Office for Standards in Education; and early-years development and childcare partnerships have brought together providers in the statutory,voluntary and independent sectors in every local authority, replacing the short-lived voucher scheme.

The emphasis on a high-quality learning environment has led to the foundation stage - the national curriculum for early years - and to the programme of "early excellence centres".

During this period, I have been privileged to work, with others, to begin to put my vision into action. The Coram Community Campus, near King's Cross station in one of the most deprived parts of London, offers a "one-stop shop" for 600 local families, offering (in partnership with Camden council, our health authority and voluntary organisations) high-quality, open-access services, and specialist services for those most in need: asylum-seekers, refugees, homeless families, families whose children have special needs, teenage parents and the local Bangladeshi community. The core of the campus is the Thomas Coram Early Excellence Centre, one of 50 such centres nationally.

There is much here to praise: but there is still much to do. What, then, remains to be done?

* There is still no coherent early-years policy. The current Treasury-led public spending review has exposed the divisions between those who believe the main goal of early years should primarily be to get women back to work, and those who believe it should be to provide high-quality education

* Much of the recent expansion is funded through diverse and short-term initiatives, and through a complex range of up to 45 funding streams - a nightmare for local officials and heads of centres and schools alike.

* Parents still have to pay for services other than nursery education in term time.

* There is still little for children under three, and lack of continuity for children both under and over three.

* Despite the near-universal support for the foundation stage, there are still tensions between the goals of the national literacy and numeracy strategies and foundation-stage guidance, and many four and five-year-old children in primaries whose needs are not being well served.

* While nursery teachers share the terms and conditions of their colleagues, other early-years workers endure low pay and poor conditions of service, and many are still inadequately trained.

* And finally, why are there not integrated early-years centres in every community and why so few based in primary schools? This must be one of the main priorities for the next five years. Research evidence points to the benefits of integrated early-years provision, particularly where there is a strong educational focus. The Government must be bold and imaginative if we are to make as much progress in the next five years as we have since 1997.

Analysis, 24-25

Gillian Pugh is chief executive of the Coram Family

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