Helping children from poor families is an urgent priority, says Margaret Lochrie
It is a striking fact that the more we understand the conditions that will allow children to thrive, the less able we are to secure their welfare. A recent publication from the Child Poverty Action Group, Britain Divided, reveals that 4.2 million children (32 per cent) are being brought up in poverty, according to the Government's definition.
Joe is nearly three years old. His elder brother has a brain tumour, which contributed to his father having a nervous breakdown. The family has now split up, and Joe's mother is bringing up the two boys on income support. A grant of just over Pounds 200 per year allows Joe to attend pre-school twice a week.
Thomas was four in May. His baby sister has a heart condition and is constantly in hospital. Because his mother is at the hospital most days, Thomas has been passed from one person to another. He is not developing as he should be and has difficulty with his speech. The family lives on income support, but a grant of around Pounds 500 enables Thomas to attend his local pre-school.
These are just two of the children who are being given the chance of early education by the Pre-school Child Appeal. Launched in December 1995 by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, and with help from companies such as Safeway, Marks and Spencer and Avon, the appeal total should reach Pounds 1 million by the end of this summer.
Even with help from those powerful partners, however, there simply is not enough money available. Around 800,000 under-fives attend the pre-schools that are members of the Pre-school Learning Alliance in England and, of these, at least 200,000 come from low-income, single-parent families.
The best thing about the doomed nursery voucher scheme is that it offered a helping hand with fees to the parents of four-year-olds. The Government, while abolishing vouchers, is nevertheless guaranteeing free education for four-year-olds.
But the Government is also committed to social justice and to ending the cycle of educational disadvantage. Given this, much more must be done and, in particular, more must be done earlier for those children most in need.
Poverty is associated with poor health, lowered educational achievement, family stress, reduced employment opportunities, and a high chance of being a victim of crime. A growing number of children from such families are coming to pre-schools with language difficulties, emotional problems and general developmental delay. By the time those children are four and qualify for free nursery education, the damage will be hard to undo. If they are unlucky enough to be placed in reception classes with insufficient staff able to give the attention or special help which is needed, then their chances of making progress will be limited.
While public finances are under restraint, universal free education for three-year-olds will remain some way off. In the meantime, funding for three-year-olds in need must be ring-fenced.
However, priority for free nursery education is only part of the story. A variety of approaches are being taken to tackle other consequences of poverty. These include drop-in centres, home visiting schemes, family learning projects, and other community-based initiatives. These initiatives, planned in concert with free nursery education, have a good chance of success.
A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Unshackling the Poor, sets out a menu of approaches to tackling poverty in the inner cities. One of these is collective self-help and, indeed, the Pre-school Learning Alliance is cited as a model of best practice in stimulating collective action, offering parents the opportunity for second-chance education, and enabling large numbers of "excluded" people "to attain the transferable skills and experience they need to maintain their self-esteem, improve their employability, manage their own affairs and develop community initiatives".
With a new Government there is now a chance for action, and we owe it to children like Joe and Thomas not to let them down.
Margaret Lochrie is chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance