The Office for Standards in Education has made life a little too easy for the political satirists with its improbable announcement that Group 4, the seemingly disaster-prone security firm, is to allocate contracts to inspect between 16,000 and 20,000 private nurseries and playgroups. Look out for the cartoons showing mischievous four-year-olds escaping from the back of an armour-plated van or making off with bullion consignments.
The guffaws that greeted the news were wholly predictable in view of Group 4's perhaps unfair reputation for having butterfingers. But the jollity has been mixed with resentment. Why should a security firm that runs two private jails poke its suspicious nose into a world of innocence, sandpits and scuffed knees, has been another common response.
But of course big companies - and Group 4 is the world's biggest security firm - recognise no occupational boundaries. Conglomerates can manufacture surface-to-air missiles and garden gnomes; an oil company can sell milk. The decision to engage Group 4 is consistent with the Government's policy of hiving off any executive functions that can be handled by an outside contractor. It may also be true that Group 4 will prove to be highly reliable - one of OFSTED's criteria - and offer tremendous value for money, though no one is prepared to divulge the size of the management fee.
Nevertheless, the National Union of Teachers is surely right to question Group 4's lack of educational expertise. The company's argument is that this will not be a handicap because it will allocate large batches of inspections to contractors who know the terrain well, such as the umbrella bodies involved in pre-school education. But that argument is not wholly convincing. Group 4 has previously demonstrated that it is prepared to buy in outside expertise - Sir Norman Fowler, ex-chairman of the Conservative party, is a former non-executive director, and Barrie Gane, one-time deputy head of the Secret Intelligence Service, was given a senior post in 1993 - and it may have to go head-hunting again in order to avert another PR disaster.
The issue of who administers the nursery inspection scheme is not the paramount one, however. There are bigger question marks over phase 1 of the programme, the thoroughness of inspections, the inspection timetable, and the rationale behind the whole exercise.
The phase 1 objective is that 700 private nurseries and playgroups receiving voucher money for four-year-olds should be inspected by Christmas. But the irony is that because many schools in the four voucher authorities - Norfolk, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster - are now admitting children at an earlier age the inspectors may find that there isn't a single four-year-old in many of the nurseries they visit this autumn. Their absence may be pronounced in Norfolk, where private nurseries are worried by the impact that early school admissions are having on their intakes ( page 6).
Inspection teams will begin visiting nurseries next month when three-year-olds are still settling in and being offered a reduced curriculum. Nevertheless, the inspectors will be expected to reach conclusions about the provision and curriculum offered to four-year-olds - on the basis of a visit that may last no more than two hours. OFSTED insists that the inspections, which will be carried out by only one inspector, will be rigorous and consistent, but this remains to be proved.
There must also be doubts about Group 4's - or anyone else's - ability to carry off phase 2 of the programme, which could demand as many as 20,000 inspections by April 1998. Group 4 is promising to meet the phase 1 target but is making no rash predictions about phase 2, presumably because it is aware that OFSTED has fallen well short of the primary inspection targets (see page 6).
But it is not the hectic inspection schedule that will most concern the early-years community. One grievance will be that an opportunity has been missed to merge education and social services inspections of nurseries. Social services departments already carry out "care, welfare and accommodation" inspections under the Children Act, but as Camden and Southwark have demonstrated, it makes more sense to look at care and education "in the round". OFSTED is having discussions with social services departments on how the two types of inspections can be co-ordinated and has said that they might even act as inspection contractors. But unless the Government also recognises that a joint inspection scheme is needed the co-ordination is likely to be no better than the three-legged-race variety.