The Government has promised 25 new style "early excellence centres" but good models already exist, says Virginia Makins.
Last week we heard an astonishing thing. A Chancellor of the Exchequer proclaimed in a Budget speech that childcare will no longer be seen as "an afterthought or a fringe element of social policies", but as "an integral part of our economic policy".
After more than 50 years of neglect and confusion, we now have a government that is seriously trying to get to grips with the often threadbare patchwork of education, childcare, health and other services for children from birth to five and their parents.
There is a clear policy to bring together responsibilities that have, until now, been damagingly split between different services, and to provide an integrated service for the parents of young children.
The childcare provisions in the Budget, with benefit concessions for lone parents and training of 50,000 young childcare workers, are only a start to the Govern-ment's manifesto promises to improve services for young children and their parents.
Last week's consultation paper on local authority early-years development plans will soon be followed by more information on the Government's plans to set up 25 "early excellence centres".
These "beacons of excellence" are intended to provide a model of integrated provision, including nursery education, day care, and other services and support for children from birth to five and their parents.
There is good experience to build on in Britain. Several such "beacons" already exist. They have shown that they can transform both adults' and children's life chances, and divert them from the path that has so often been mapped, leading from poor or inconsistent parenting to school failure to exclusion and juvenile crime and expensive child protection procedures.
Last year, I visited 10 multi-agency early years centres, preparing case studies of their work which are published this week by the National Children's Bureau.
There have been no longitudinal studies to "prove" the centres' effectiveness - though American research shows that high-quality provision for young children and their parents results in considerable savings on money spent to relieve educational and social failure later in life.
But I found plenty of anecdotal evidence of success. Headteachers who recruited children from the centres had not seen the escalating numbers of pupils with special needs and behaviour problems reported by heads in other schools with comparable intakes.
Parents who would formerly have been defensive or hostile to teachers came on to primary schools confident in their role as partners in their children's education.
Social workers based in the centres were free to do the positive preventive work that is generally drowned out by the pressures of child-protection procedures. In particular, areas with well-established centres had many fewer children taken into care than similar districts elsewhere.
Much social work with parents and children is done in centres which only take families in trouble. Helen Penn's new research (TES, June 27) shows what unhappy places those can be.
I met families who had been unco-operative and aggressive in "stigmatised" centres, but seemed pleased about their referral to an open centre that was highly valued by all the parents in the neighbourhood.
Doctors, health visitors and speech therapists found that the centres made it much easier to reach parents under stress, who were least likely to get themselves and their children to regular clinics.
The centre staff picked up babies' and toddlers' developmental problems early on, when intervention and parent support could be most effective. Often, this pre-empted the need for expensive special education when children went on to school.
Some of the centres I visited provided an immense range of services: nursery schooling, playgroups and parent and toddler groups, day care, after-school and holiday care, health services, social services family support, and adult education and training.
They were life-enhancing places, with warm relationships between staff and parents, which generated a lot of fun and mutual support. The staff had been well-trained to get alongside parents and respect their views. Parents and childminders were well aware of their luck in having a centre on their doorstep. One mother told me her husband wanted to move out of their inner-city area. But she refused to budge before all their children had gone on to school. "He says: 'It's only a nursery'. But I tell him 'It's not just a nursery. It's our life'.".
Several centres had developed a high-quality curriculum for babies and toddlers, as well as for three to five-year-olds. This didn't just benefit children. It made parents excited - rather than maddened - by their toddlers' stages of development and activities.
The educational opportunities for adults were equally impressive. There were cheerful informal groups doing aromatherapy or healthy cooking, groups looking at parenting concerns, groups taking national vocational qualifications in childcare, basic literacy groups, and formal access courses for further and higher education.
Often, the informal groups led people who would never have gone near a further education college on to qualifications and jobs. Parents gained self-esteem and confidence, which spilled over to their children - and in some cases moved them from receiving benefit to paying taxes.
It is important that ministers realise that their new "early excellence" centres can't just be magicked out of thin air, or developed to a single blueprint. The work of the best centres I visited was based on a deep understanding of their particular local communities, and on responding to often changing and needs and wishes of parents.
Staff coming in from different professional backgrounds - many of them with only a basic nursery qualification - needed a lot of on-the-job training to help them to work with adults who were often living in very difficult circumstances, and to learn to respect those parents' achievements and potential.
The Government promises a long-overdue framework for early-years training. But it should also adopt the practice of some of the best centres, and make sure that staff have at least three hours a week earmarked for planning, development and training.
There also needs to be administrative structures that genuinely promote multi-agency working, both in local and national government. That is easier said than done. The leaders in the pioneer centres have had to battle to explain the range and objectives of their work to local authority officers, trained to think in rigid boxes.
The needs of very young children and their parents do not split neatly into boxes. High-quality local early-years centres, open to all comers with children from birth to five, can generate a "multiplier effect" that greatly increases the impact of services now delivered separately.
Gordon Brown's Budget speech gave welcome recognition to the fact that many problems addressed by his Welfare to Work programmes start in schools. But many of the failures in schools go even back further, to children's earliest years.
Let us hope the Chancellor can also find extra money to help the Government live up to its promises about early excellence, so there are far more high-quality services for the very youngest children and their parents. If he does, he will certainly be saving millions of pounds now spent on tackling social and educational crises for children in schools, and beyond.
Not just a nursery; multi-agency early years centres in action by Virginia Makins is published by the National Children's Bureau, price Pounds 14. 5O (Pounds 9.50 to NCB members)