Early warning

30th May 1997 at 01:00
The Government has moved swiftly to wipe out nursery vouchers - but its interim plans for the under-fives do far more than that. Though still in embryo form, they point the way toward the planned and integrated system of education and care for the under-fives that experts have been wanting for decades. It is refreshing to hear the language of marketplace competition replaced by talk of co-operation, consultation, partnership and planning.

The central plank is the establishment of early-years forums run by the local education authorities. They will evaluate all existing services (not just education) for the under-fives, and plan the distribution and expansion of places.

The proposals in last week's circular leave many questions unanswered, and are deliberately vague in places, but they make it possible to visualise the bridge leading to Labour's declared goals: a place for every three and four-year-old which meets their needs for education and care; uniform standards and a universal framework for registration and inspection; better training for early-years workers; and a national childcare framework.

That bridge must be constructed, though, and no one ever built a bridge without spending money. Labour's circular enjoins LEAs not to pack more four-year-olds into reception classes, and tells them to include private nurseries and pre-schools (previously known as playgroups) in their plans.

But the party's pledges on taxation and spending make it hard to see how the much-needed training of early-years workers will be paid for, how premises will be built or improved - or how any of the extra places will be funded.

As things currently stand, Labour can be accused of sacrificing some of its longest-held principles. It cannot pass unnoticed that ministers have promised to spend public money on private education for under-fives in the same week that a Bill to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme for school-aged children had its First Reading. The party's long-standing commitment to a state-funded nursery place for every three and four-year-old has now given way to to the idea of partnership with the private and voluntary sectors.

British state nursery schools rightly have an international reputation for their clarity of purpose and high quality - but most children simply do not get this head start. Many parents have to be satisfied with playgroups, which were established in the 1960s as a stop-gap measure, because there was insufficient nursery education to meet the demand. They have made great strides since then, and some provide first-rate education; but other playgroups fulfil a rather different role, and cannot provide schooling on a par with state nursery schools or classes. What role are they to play?

It is also unclear why the Government wants to set up 25 Early Excellence centres combining education, childcare and family services, when there are already 100 or so around the country - unless it is to signal their commitment to this approach as a long-term goal for all children.

The seeds of a vision do lie buried within the circular. It may disappoint the early-years lobby with its pragmatism, but it is also forward-looking. Realistically, there are neither the funds nor the trained teachers to provide a nursery place for every child in a state school. And there are also real advantages if local authorities are to work with other providers.

Such co-operation can lead into a coherent framework of services for increasingly younger children and their families. One-off examples of playgroups and primary schools co-operating to plan their curricula and admissions will become more widespread. The circular states that in the future, "a qualified teacher should be involved in all settings providing early-years education within an early-years development plan". This could mean a teacher on every staff - or simply an advisory teacher in every LEA; but at least it states a principle.

There is much that creative, innovative local authorities can now do to advance their development plans - even without extra money from the DFEE. Some have obtained funding from Europe, government economic regeneration funding or industry to establish integrated services or partnerships with the voluntary and private sectors. Authorities such as North Tyneside, Kirklees, Manchester and Sheffield have set clear priorities and found the money to start tackling them.

David Blunkett, too, has set his priorities. As more and more evidence builds up to suggest that early education not only improves children's academic performance but helps nip social problems such as unemployment and crime in the bud (see page 3), pressure will grow to boost the quality and quantity of places for three-year-olds quickly. Mr Blunkett will have to find the funds, perhaps sooner than he would like, to bring his plans to fruition.

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