Acronym arouses alliance's anger
It is difficult to dislike schools minister Robin Squire. His natural bonhomie can charm even the most difficult questioner. There can't have been many conferences where the minister in charge of young children's education has been booed.
But booed he was at the Pre-school Learning Alliance's annual general meeting in Bournemouth last week.
His mistake was to call the alliance the "PLA". The audience's hostile reaction obviously confused the jovial Mr Squire who looked up and said: "Very good." He seemed to be referring to the quality of the boo. He wasn't to know he'd hit a raw alliance nerve.
The day before pre-school leaders had provoked an argument about changing the charity's name from the Pre-school Playgroups Association to the Pre-school Learning Alliance. This may sound like a technical detail to outsiders, but for the alliance and its 20,000 pre-schools it strikes at the heart of the movement.
The alliance wants its "playgroups" to be called "pre-schools", a term which has more status and signifies more learning. But the acronym, "PLA", is definitely taboo, even if it does sound like "play", a key part of young children's early learning.
"PLA" is meaningless and no one will know what it means, argued the alliance.
Many members were upset that the alliance's national executive committee had acted without consulting the AGM but after the argument, during which the NEC was accused of being undemocratic, the conference supported a motion to change the name - even though it had already been changed.
Fortunately, Mr Squire knows how to duck tough questions in the most good-natured way. Fiona Humphries from the alliance's Buckinghamshire sub-committee asked what was going to happen to the nation's under-fours as the nursery voucher pilots loom. Schools were setting up nurseries for four-year-olds and putting pre-schools out of business. Where were the three-year-olds to go? she asked to applause.
Mr Squire acknowledged the importance of the issue and said he was thinking about education authority recommendations to build partnerships. But he added: "It's not in a school's long or short-term interest to evict the existing provider. I cannot stop it but I have to say, if, hypothetically, word of this were to reach the local newspaper, I would think that you would have rather greater support."
Judith Thompson, a national executive member from Devon, objected to what she said was the covert lowering of the statutory school age. Parents were often forced to take their children out of a pre-school and into a reception class or risk losing a school place.
"It is blackmail of a very nasty type," she said.
Mr Squire obliged: "I will look closely at the possibility of guidance to local authorities. Trust me to have a look at that."
In response to a demand for a minimum size for reception classes with four-year-olds, the minister soothed: "Yes, we are thinking about it and I cannot give the assurance you want beyond saying it is a very difficult area, not least because it varies across the country. But I think the wind is blowing in your direction."
After the minister's speech Peggy Dring from Medway in Kent, said: "I think Mr Squire knows his stuff. Politicians are good at not committing themselves. He can put it in a very nice way. He knows what we like to hear."
Alan Parker, education officer with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, told the alliance the AMA was "hostile" to the voucher scheme. He said it did not guarantee new places, was bureaucratic, encouraged a cash culture and would destabilise existing services.
He advocated, instead, local development plans which, would involve private, voluntary and maintained providers uniting to provide local schemes.
But Margaret Lochrie, the alliance's chief executive officer, was lukewarm about the AMA proposals. "I welcome their sentiment but it would be useful to see the substance," she said, adding that it was hard not to see the proposals as the AMA trying to retain local authority control.