Private nursery schools and infants' schools are battling over pupils in an attempt to win nursery vouchers. More private nursery schools are taking children from the age of two, or extending their hours as they vie with pre-prep and state schools for custom, while a growing number of local authorities are considering taking children into reception classes as soon as they turn four.
The Early Childhood Education Forum, which represents state and private schools, believes the vouchers are having a divisive effect. "Where people had begun to work together, particularly under the Children Act, they are now in competition," says Gillian Pugh, chair of the Forum. "An opportunity to provide a coherent system of early childcare and education has been lost."
Esther Ripley, editor of the Montessori Courier, says the battle is to snap up four-year-olds. "Nurseries are already losing pupils to pre-prep schools, who are taking younger children. The vouchers will only make this worse because, to protect their funding, state schools are now forced to consider admitting four-year-olds."
In some areas, popular state schools are rumoured to be warning parents that they cannot keep places open unless children start at four, while private nursery schools are threatening to retaliate by refusing to accept vouchers unless pupils stay until five.
In a bid to keep its four-year-olds, the London Montessori Centre School is planning to provide full day-care for three to five-year-olds from September. Lesley Britton, the centre's director, says it will offer the traditional Montessori "learning environment", with a chance for the children to rest when they need to.
It will be damaging for Montessori schools to lose their four-year-olds. "That's the age when we're able to achieve a lot, building on what we've done before," says Ms Britton. But she also sees the extension in hours as meeting the needs of working mothers.
The centre has just opened a training course for Montessori teachers working with children aged from six months to three years and reports an increasing demand from Montessori schools for day-care courses.
Dr Helen Prochazka, head of the academic unit at the Montessori St Matthew Centre in London, says the schools have always offered education to children, "so it's not a problem for us to meet the 'desirable outcomes' the Government wants from the voucher scheme".
She believes that parents will also be swayed by Montessori schools' superior facilities, now that the Government has abolished space regulations for maintained schools. Dr Prochazka feels that admitting two-year-olds to nursery schools is "unhelpful", although a Montessori school would concentrate on developing hand-eye co-ordination and practical skills, rather than teaching letters.
Private nursery schools like the Bibury in Poole, Dorset, are also extending their hours and taking younger children. Here, principal Sue Barker is about to invest Pounds 30,000 in an extension where staff can care for babies aged from six to 18 months. She also plans to keep the school open until 5.30pm. At present, the nursery mainly takes three and four-year-olds, with a handful of pupils aged two. Many of the children go on to local state schools at four-and-a-half as there is virtually no state nursery education in Dorset.
"I have to cover myself in case local schools start to offer places at four," Mrs Barker says. "We are already increasingly losing children at three or three-and-a-half to pre-prep schools. The private schools think that if they get the children in at two or three, they will be able to keep them." The number of two-year-olds attending pre-prep schools has gone up by 27 per cent since 1995, and the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools is about to produce recommendations on appropriate staffing, curriculum and training for under-fours.
Meanwhile, the Dorset local education authority has discussed the admission of children after their fourth birthdays as infants' schools will lose money under the voucher scheme if pupils stay in private nurseries until five.
But to provide an appropriate curriculum for the four-year-olds, the Bibury needs a viable number of pupils, forcing Mrs Barker to make some hard decisions. She would like to tell parents that she can only accept their vouchers if they promise to keep their children at the school until five - but children who do stay on could then risk losing places at infants' school, leaving parents with less "choice" than they had before.
"Parents are going to feel they've got a gun to their heads," says Gillian Pugh. "This is what happens when you leave it to market forces." She is also worried that more four-year-olds will end up in reception classes with inappropriate provision.
Rosemary Murphy, chair of the National Private Day Nurseries' Association, says the vouchers scheme takes no account of the fact that 85 per cent of four-year-olds are already in reception classes.
Anomalies in early years' regulations are another cause for concern. Mrs Murphy points out that, while the staff-child ratio for three to five-year-olds in day nurseries must be 1:8, four-year-olds can be in classes of up to 13 in nursery schools - and in reception classes of any size in infants' schools. "It's a massive loophole, and it's getting bigger."