Good quality nursery education can offer young children a vital start in life. That is why the Government is committed to enabling all four-year-olds to have access to a place from September this year if their parents want them to have one.
Early-years education has been available in schools for years in some parts of the country; in others, the private and voluntary sectors have complemented the places in schools. But there have been gaps. Some children have had fewer than three terms of early education before they reach compulsory school age. Others have had fewer than three terms of early education before they reach compulsory school age. Others have had a place for fewer than five sessions a week. Whether a place was available depended too often on where you lived, rather than the needs of your child.
We want to extend the opportunities for early education so that every family has a clear entitlement to a real place, rather than simply the paper promise offered by the discredited nursery voucher scheme.
It is important that good quality nursery education lays the foundations for later learning. The best nursery provision develops the underpinning skills and understanding children need for numeracy and literacy. It stimulates children's curiosity as well as giving them the confidence and willingness to learn. And it teaches children to work together, to share and take turns and the other essential social skills they need.
Our aim goes much wider than nursery education for young children. We want an integrated approach to good quality nursery education and day care so that the needs of children and their families can be met. That is why I was so pleased to announce seven early excellence centres last month. We will announce more later this year. These centres embody a commitment to such integration, in settings which recognise the need to work with the wider family and community from the start.
This approach also lies behind our requirement that each local education authority must establish a local partnership bringing voluntary and private providers together with the LEA to draw up an early- years development plan. The department sent out guidance at the end of October about the operation of partnerships and what the plans should cover. Work locally should now be well under way.
Every area will have different needs and is starting from a different point. There is, though, a very clear framework and a number of themes which are central to the approval of any plan by the Secretary of State. Early-years development plans must focus on providing for the needs of young children. I know that those needs vary. Different children flourish in different surroundings and we should respond to their individual needs.
In developing their plans, it is important that partnerships recognise and celebrate the contributions that can be made by all sectors to early education and day care.
All will be working towards the desirable learning outcomes, but bringing their own particular strengths as well: pre-schools and playgroups involve parents and emphasise the benefits of structured play; private nurseries already link early education with day care; and the maintained sector allows children to become familiar with the school environment. All providers will need to learn from each other's strengths.
Plans are not about creating monopolies, but about building on these strengths that already exist through the diversity of provision. They will need to demonstrate how collaboration, co-operation and partnership between individual providers, between sectors and between other interested parties contribute to diversity and excellence in early-years services. Even in an LEA where the level of maintained provision is already high, we expect to see real partnership and collaboration.
This is because we need to look to the longer term, not only to create integrated services, but also, over time, to secure places for three-year-olds.
As a result LEAs - through their partnerships - will need to think carefully about the longer-term impact of any decisions they take now. Quality and standards are central. All sectors have both good and poor practice. We intend to raise the standard of all providers to that of the best.
Early-years development plans will need to contain a strategy for improving quality across the board which works with the nursery education inspections undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education.
Those plans should include opportunities for sharing best practice, since we all have something to learn from others. And in areas with an early excellence centre, dissemination of good practice will be part of their remit.
Early-years development plans are a significant step forward in providing early-years services. They have the potential to bring together providers in ways which benefit children, their parents and the providers themselves.
Estelle Morris is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for school standards.