Early years. Parents, voluntary groups and the local council got together to give a small village the playgroup it so desperately needed. John Clark reports.
A dillar, a dollar, a 10 o'clock scholar, goes the nursery rhyme. It seems appropriate in the case of Dollar, a sleepy little village nestling beneath the Ochil Hills east of Stirling.
Earlier this year Dollar was the only community in Clackmannanshire without a nursery school or class. But now, thanks to a pioneering initiative involving parents, voluntary groups and the council, nearly 40 four-year-olds are enjoying a variety of activities in the local primary school.
The "supported playgroup" is a triumph for parents and represents an original and cost-effective solution to cash-strapped Clackmannanshire - the smallest of the newly-created single-tier authorities in Scotland. Margaret Paterson, the Labour council's education spokesperson, says: "The supported playgroup represents a new model of what can be achieved through close co-operation between the council, the community and voluntary organisations.
"On its own, the council would not have been able to give Dollar a nursery class at this stage. Equally, the playgroups could never have afforded the level of professional support and expertise now available to them."
Sandy Wilson, of the council's education department, says: "What we were looking for was a half-way house between a playgroup traditionally run by parents with a play leader and a fully-fledged local authority nursery class where there would be a nursery teacher and a couple of nursery nurses."
The solution was the supported playgroup located in Strathdevon primary school, where the council has employed a full-time nursery nurse to give professional backing to the work of the playleader and volunteers.
A nursery teacher, also employed by the council, provides part-time curricular advice and the head teacher of the school, Susan Ross, manages the staff. The overall running of the supported playgroup is the responsibility of a manage-ment group from the community.
The classroom is bright and colourful with children's work jostling for space on the walls. A group of children are in one corner for story time, others are playing shop and pretending to sell pizzas - a game inspired by a recent visit to the local fast food outlet.
Alison Lyon is a parent helper whose son Stuart attends each afternoon. She says: "He loves it and I enjoy being here. It gives me an insight into what the children are doing. I think it's excellent having the playgroup in the school. The children can see what school is like and they'll be more confident when they come here."
Fiona Ramsay, chairperson of the supported playgroup, says: "For years there have been playgroups in Dollar with volunteers and parents running them. This is the first time that the commitment has been picked up by the council to get something done."
After wide consultation and active lobbying of the council, three existing playgroups in the village have merged and their combined provision for four-year-olds has been relocated within Strathdevon primary.
The school, which has 223 pupils and 10 staff, lies in the centre of the village. Small interior courtyards have been turned into gardens.
One has a greenhouse which produces a crop of tomatoes, while the other has a wild garden in which a rabbit and a guinea pig roam free.
Next to the school is the new civic centre where the mother and toddler group meets each day at a cost of Pounds 1.50 per family, per session. The playgroup for two and three-year-olds also meets here for Pounds 2.50 per session per child. The new supported playgroup in school for "rising fives" charges Pounds 7.50 a week for five morning or afternoon sessions.
Keir Bloomer, the council's director of education, says: "What this initiative does is create a new model for extending services for younger children. Even if we are able to set up a traditional local authority nursery in the next year, what we now have is a way in which we can get together with the community in order to support younger children.
"What the council would like ideally to be able to do is to offer everybody two years' nursery provision. At present,just under 94 per cent of four-year-olds have a local authority nursery place, one of the highest percentages in Scotland. If you add this scheme in, we have nursery provision for 100 per cent of parents of four-year-olds who want it."
If the Government goes ahead with implementing its plans for a universal voucher scheme for four-year-olds, the council hopes to be able to channel some of its existing funds into provision for younger children.