Government plans to expand under-fives' education were given a boost this week with the announcement that the House of Commons Education Committee would be conducting an inquiry into the education of young children, in addition to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's recent request for curriculum guidelines for four-year-olds.
Mrs Shephard has asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education to devise guidelines for an under-fives curriculum, as reported in The TES on November 18. SCAA and OFSTED have been working on a curriculum for young children following the Prime Minister's "cast-iron commitment" at the Conservative conference in October to begin providing nursery places for all four-year-olds before the next general election.
It is now understood that SCAA will be the lead body in developing the proposals by January, but will work in conjunction with OFSTED, which has been gathering evidence from nursery and primary inspections. A consultation exercise will follow the January proposals.
SCAA's remit comes in the same week that the House of Commons committee announced a "limited" inquiry into education for the under-fives. It intends to reconsider the report of its predecessor in 1988. That committee, which was chaired by Timothy Raison, the Conservative MP for Aylesbury, said its greatest worry was the plight of three and four-year-olds receiving an "inappropriate" education in primary schools. It was also concerned about parental choice at nursery level and about reducing the disparities in provision between one authority and another.
The committee intends to publish a short report before Christmas, in time to be considered in the current Department for Education consultation exercise. It is asking for brief written submissions - no oral evidence will be taken - to be addressed to education committee clerk, Matthew Hamlyn at the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, Labour's new education spokesman, David Blunkett, has criticised Mrs Shephard for backtracking on John Major's conference pledge within a month of the Prime Minister's speech.
Mr Blunkett, speaking to the Socialist Education Association second annual governors' conference in Leeds last week, said: "Mrs Shephard has no idea where the money is, nor what the timescale might be, or even whether she is providing extra primary school reception classes or nursery provision. Instead it looks as though the Government are turning to the old sleight of hand - tax relief for the better-off to get private nursery provision - while offering nothing extra for those in greatest need.
"It seems clear that the amount needed to provide a place for every four-year-old will simply not be forthcoming. A broken promise in a month must be a record even for this Government."