education, says Warwick Mansell.
FOR the past two years ministers have been grappling with a baffling paradox.
How is it that hundreds of playgroups face closure when early- years education is in the throes of an expansion unknown in its 40-year history?
The Government's initial response was to throw a very limited amount of money at the problem - pound;1 million over twoyears. But campaigners claimed that even with this handout, 800 playgroups a year faced closure.
So, in March, Margaret Hodge, minister in charge of early-years education, announced an investigation by an independent panel.
Seven months later, the outcome of this review - a weighty 112-page document - has been released. Produced by a panel of six experts which is chaired by Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, Tomorrow's Children - The Review of Pre-schools and Playgroups appears to be an exhaustive piece of research and has 55 recommendations.
The report, for England only, endorses the sector's claims about the scale of the problem. It says the number of pre-schools and playgroups has declined from a peak of 18,000 in 1991 to 15,700 this year - despite the Government's fulfilling its promise to offer all four-year-olds a nursery place.
The explanation for this apparent anomaly lies in the expansion of school reception classes. With the introduction of the nursery- voucher scheme, there is a financial incentive for schools to recruit children as soon as possible after their fourth birthday. Parents have actually reported feeling pressured by schools into seeking an early reception- class place, the report says.
The panel wants the Government to clamp down on schools pressuring parents, by ensuring that local authorities and early- years partnerships have procedures to investigate such cases. This should be backed up by a change in the admissions policy to encourage providers to admit children at two different times during the year, meaning that younger children could stay at playgroup for an extra few months before joining a reception class. And the panel wants the Government to consider a pupil-teacher ratio in reception classes of 15:1.
But the most fundamental recommendation is for a change in the funding system. Currently, core funding for an early-years provider is based entirely on how many children it educates. The report recommends protecting playgroups by making a contribution towards the number of places they provide, even if these go unfilled.
Implicit in the report is an acknowledgement that pre-schools and playgroups need to broaden and improve their services. The panel calls on Government funding to ensure that all registered early-years settings are led by staff qualified to graduate level. Providers should also be helped to expand their services to include, say, more family support or daycare services.
The funding formula should cover building repairs and extra help for providers in disadvantaged areas. All of these changes should be backed up by an integrated inspection regime, covering private, voluntary and maintained providers, the report says.
The Government's desire to safeguard the widest possible choice in early-years education may depend on how far it can meet the challenges outlined in this comprehensive report.
"Tomorrow's Children - The Review of Pre-school and Playgroups" is available from the DFEE, on 0845 60 222 60
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE REPORT
The recommendations are:
a clamp-down on schools pressuring parents to enrol their children for reception classes soon after the age of four a change in the playgroup admissions policy to admit children twice a year
a change in the funding system to protect playgroups
funding to ensure that all registered early-years settings have staff qualified to graduate level
money for building repairs and extra support for providers in
consideration of a pupil:teacher ratio in reception classes of 15:1
an integrated inspection regime, covering private, voluntary and maintained providers