Don't leave first lessons to chance

28th March 1997 at 00:00
If Select Committees avoid inquiries into subjects where there is a clear and stated difference between the political parties, they would stand accused of ducking some of the "big issues" - and rightly so. Given the strong ideological differences on the subject, the Education and Employment Select Committee chose to confine its inquiry into the operation of the nursery education voucher scheme - not the merits of vouchers per se.

Given, too, the proximity of the General Election, it was too much to hope that the report would not be leaked before publication - and leak it did. While I strongly deprecate the leak and the breach of that trust between Members which is essential if Select Committees are to function effectively, I am greatly disappointed that the proper publication and discussion of our report was lost in a welter of accusation and acrimony. As so often, the culprit achieves the instant party political headlines but loses the opportunity for a fuller debate - letting down not only colleagues but also the many people who contributed evidence and who were looking forward to the outcome.

Our objective was to see, on the basis of the evidence, just how far the four phase one areas had been able to meet the aims of the voucher scheme. These were to expand provision, to ensure quality and to increase parental choice. From this evidence, we attempted to make some assessment of likely developments when the scheme goes nationwide.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the evidence we received ranged between, at best, neutral and, at worst hostile. There was, however, a genuine attempt by many who submitted evidence to be constructive and make positive suggestions for improvement. If a Select Committee's report is to be taken seriously, it must reflect, as accurately and fairly as possible, the evidence presented. I believe that this report does so and is well worthy of serious consideration by all who work in the field of early years education.

We were particularly concerned by a considerable amount of evidence showing increased numbers of young four year-olds attending reception classes, many of which were inappropriate settings for these very young children. Given the way the scheme is financed, it is not surprising that many local authorities have sought, in the words of one commentator, to "hoover up" voucher money by a change of admission policies. The resultant pressure on parents to opt for school rather than the local playgroup or other setting could well have the perverse effect of forcing a reduction in overall provision and choice.

I am concerned that if, during phase two of the scheme, increasing numbers of parents choose to send their children to reception classes at the age of four, we shall see, de facto, a lowering of the age at which formal school starts, by a term or more. Where the educational provision is appropriate to the needs and age of the child, this may well be beneficial. From the evidence given to the inquiry, it is far from clear that this very significant step is being taken solely for educational reasons. I was pleased to see that the DFEE had issued guidance to LEAs on the need to ensure that what is provided in their reception classes is appropriate in terms of staffing and curriculum, but it is too important an area to be left to chance.

All the evidence and research I have seen, over many years, stresses the very real benefits to the individual child and to society from high-quality nursery education. The National Commission went further by suggesting a shift of funding from tertiary education to the early years. Whether or not such a re-thinking of priorities comes about, I believe we need, as a matter of some urgency given the trends, a full review of the age at which our children enter early years and primary provision.

Such a rethink has wide implications if the appropriateness of the setting is to be assured. Staffing in primary school reception classes will need revision eg by the use of more trained nursery teachers and nursery nurses as well as by making available compulsory in-service training for existing staff whose initial training did not relate to early years. There is also a disparity in the way the law affects the maintained and non-maintained sectors. The requirement of the Children Act relating to staffchild ratios in a private or voluntary setting is 1:8 (or less) three or four year-olds. In state maintained nursery schools, this ratio is normally 1:13 under-fives but, in reception classes, there is no such legal provision and some reception classes can be as large as 30 or 35. This disparity needs urgent attention.

Inevitably, this report will be eclipsed by the general election but that problem will not go away. If left untackled, I believe that it will seriously inhibit the growth of high-quality nursery education in this country - a growth which is the stated desire of politicians and educationists alike.

Sir Malcolm Thornton MP is chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment.

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