Ministers have selected a role model for early learning centres. Dorothy Lepkowska reports
The Hillfields area of Coventry is better known for prostitution and acute social problems than for its excellence in education.
But all that is changing: this week the Government made this deprived inner-city area a pioneer of its early-years policy.
The Hillfields Nursery Centre, just a few minutes' walk from the heart of the city, has been named as one of seven early excellence centres which will lead the way with a new form of pre-school provision, combining real learning with effective childcare and integrating services which will help to put a disadvantaged community back on its feet.
The staff at Hillfields have seen it all. Sheila Thorpe, the headteacher, has organised meetings between parents and Relate counsellors and set up referrals to mental health agencies for those who have succumbed to the stresses of domestic violence, unemployment and family breakdown.
At the core of the service, however, is the education of the 250 children, ranging in age from just a few months to four years.
Mrs Thorpe said: "If I had to choose whether our role was to educate or act as social workers, I would have to say that education was the most important - and that parents have to understand that.
"Many of these children come from families where the parents are unemployed or have not benefited from the school system. We have to support those people so they can look forward to a better future.
"We have proved that we can combine all of those factors successfully and are making a difference.
"The recognition from the Government is very prestigious for us and for Coventry because what we are doing here will impact on the city as a whole. "
The learning process, claim the staff, is not just for the children. Hillfields has enabled parents to continue their own education by providing Access courses and encouraging some to go on to college and university.
The nursery will get Pounds 1.5 million over the next three years from the Government and public and private sponsorship to improve facilities and to train staff at other nurseries to carry out similar work.
Launching the scheme at Hillfields, Estelle Morris, the education minister, (who taught humanities at the nearby Sidney Stringer School for 18 years before entering Parliament), said: "This is all part of changing the culture in our society.
"The lives of many parents are no longer suited to the provision we have in this country for the under-fives. We have to provide services that meet the needs of families.
"Integrating several agencies enables us to tackle social and economic problems, which will in turn lead to improvements in academic standards, for example by enabling teachers to identify more quickly children with special needs.'' Ms Morris said that the term "early learning centres" was "not lightly bestowed'' on the first seven nurseries.
"This title has been awarded to them because they demonstrated effective partnerships working to deliver early-years services and sharing examples of good practice,'' she said.
The other six nurseries named in the first phase are Bridgwater College Children's Centre, Somerset; Dorothy Gardner Centre, Westminster; Pen Green Centre, Corby, Northamptonshire; Reddish Vale Nursery School, Stockport; Pembury House and Woodlands Park centres in Haringey; and the Activities, Childcare and Education Centre (ACE), Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
Ms Morris said the inclusion of two centres serving rural areas reflected the isolation many families living outside towns and cities faced. A further 18 early excellence centres will be announced over the next two years.