Playgroups and pre-schools, for so long an immovable feature of the early years landscape, are in crisis. They were formed 37 years ago to promote nursery education, but over the past five years their raison d'#234;tre has been threatened by the drain of four-year-olds into reception classes. Can pre-schools survive? And can they change their spots?
In the scramble for the cash released by the ill-fated nursery vouchers scheme, most local authorities altered their admission policies to admit children to school in the September after their fourth birthday.
The fate of the nation's youngest children at sea in large, unsuitable classes has long worried early years specialists.
At least 800 pre-schools have been forced to close in the past year, and the Pre-School Learning Alliance estimates that a further 1,500 are under threat.
This week the alliance launched a campaign to raise public and political awareness of the contribution pre-schools can make, and to try to forestall any further closures.
Its highlight will be a day of celebration, with a carnival and conference in London on May 6, when a mass petition in support of pre-schools will be presented to MPs.
But can the educational tide, now sweeping four-year-olds into school, be turned so easily? Pre-schools are fighting to be heard in a culture where schools are increasingly dominant, and where parents pack children off to reception at four because they fear that otherwise they will lose the place, or worse, that their child will fall behind in the learning race.
The very word "pre-school", which has replaced "play-group" in some parts of the country, was a deliberate strategy by the alliance to raise the status of its 20,000 playgroups in England.
The quality of pre-schools varies, but it is undeniable that some cater better for the needs of a four-year-old than an overflowing reception class.
Compared with five-year-olds, young four-year-olds need more space to play, both inside and outside, according to Ann Jamieson, director of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau. She says they need more trained adults with them (at least one for every 13 children, rather than the one to 32 ratio of some reception classes), and a more child-centred curriculum.
The other great advantage of pre-schools is that they are run by the community, for the community. Unlike schools, they involve parents in a very natural way, often giving them the
confidence to go on to further study or training.
"Pre-schools have a significant role to play in the future, working in partnership with local authorities," Ms Jamieson says. Their funding infrastructure is weak, and needs to be improved, but for local authorities they are a good investment because they are cheap to run.
It is uncertain just how well the new partnerships, which have been established over the past nine months between the maintained, private and voluntary sectors, will work.
The alliance's Margaret Lochrie says that in a few cases, such as in Hampshire, the local authority is keen to involve the voluntary sector. But she says partnerships have not yet
had any impact in terms of
persuading authorities to rethink admission policies.
Pre-school leaders, as well as early years specialists, are
waiting anxiously to see
how stringent the Government will be in its forthcoming
assessments of local authority early years plans.
Worst affected by the recent heavy losses of four-year-olds are pre-schools in rural areas such as Devon, Dorset, and Hereford and Worcester, where there is little state nursery provision.
Many are managing to hang on by holding over the meagre voucher money they received for four-year-olds in the summer term, but this leaves nothing to spend on better equipment or more training.
In Scotland, where pre-schools have lost their four-year-old s, not to reception classes but to new state nursery classes, many have responded by taking children from two-and-a-half, instead of two-and-three-quart ers. Many local authorities are considering dropping the age further to just two years.
Lowering the age has significant implications in terms of staff training and the differing needs and behaviour of younger children, but according to Mary Wales, development manager for the Scottish Pre-Schools and Playgroups, this is essential if pre-schools are to survive.
Some English pre-schools have begun to follow suit, despite reservations about extending their hours and changing their registration.
However, this is impossible for small pre-schools operating from church and community halls that are used by other groups.
Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, suggests that since so many four-year olds have only half-time places at school, pre-schools could usefully link with a local school and provide care - "a place where children could relax" - for the other part of the day. Help
with after-school clubs is another possibility.
Pre-schools can, and do, have a future, provided that they can build on their traditional strengths and adapt to the changing needs of their local communities.
In the short term, there are likely to be further closures while admission policies remain as they are. But in the longer term, perhaps we will see a greater diversity in pre-schools, and a greater flexibility in what they provide. They are not off the map yet.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance campaign, "Pre-Schools Matter", was launched yesterday (February 26), and will continue throughout the year