Dalton's Diary

5th April 1996 at 01:00
We are having to face up to the challenge of the voucher system for four year olds due to be introduced next April. The scheme is only being piloted this year, and in theory could be abandoned, but this Government's record in persisting with educational initiatives in the face of apathy, hostility and abject failure is impressive. Look at SATs, opting-out, City Technology Colleges. Only an early election could save us.

We would love to have a separate nursery unit attached to our school, but the Pounds 1,100 per child clearly does not allow for any capital expenditure. We will be able to provide half-time places for four-year olds, staffed by a nursery nurse and a classroom ancillary, but only if they can share our current facilities. In other words, our "nursery" will be tucked away in a corner of our receptionyear 1 area.

Most educationalists agree that four-year olds should not be in primary classrooms, but the present indications suggest that this is what is anticipated - the staffing ratios laid down for nursery classes will be waived for schools and children will be expected to be working towards level 1 of the national curriculum.

For my school, solving our own problems of squeezing in an extra year group is only part of the picture. We are near neighbours to two other primaries with whom we have very good relationships. We do not wish to do anything that could be seen to be competitive, and we do not yet know if they are willing or able to accommodate the newly-rich toddlers.

We are also unclear about the attitude of the LEA. They may feel obliged to accept vouchers, but though in theory they support nursery education, in practice, with little new money, it can only be funded at the expense of the rest of the education system. So primary schools may actually be discouraged from meeting the demand.

We have also established good lines of co-operation and communication with the three playgroups in the village, which are likely to break down abruptly if we poach all their customers. The playgroups could of course register as providers themselves, but only by altering radically their current practices.

All operate in shared premises with limited capacity. Without huge capital expenditure, they could provide only half-time places for all the four-year-olds in the village by excluding the three-year-olds. Alternatively, if the village schools decide to start admitting four-year-olds, the playgroups can only survive by offering extra sessions to the under fours, who look like getting either more or less than they want.

The only people who look like winning under the voucher system are the small number of mostly working parents whose four-year-olds attend the private day nursery. They will get Pounds 1,100 rebate on their fees, and will presumably promptly vote Conservative.

In fact, an ideal time for the government to hold the next election would be in the three or four weeks between the issuing of vouchers to the parents of a million four-year-olds, and their discovering that there is little chance of actually spending the money.

In the meantime, the best option for this village is for us all to get together, schools, parents, playgroups and nursery, to discuss how we can provide the best pre-schooling for all our three and four-year-olds. Now there is a novel idea.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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