The news that David Soskin, the founder of one of Britain's largest groups of private nursery schools and the author of a right-wing pamphlet on vouchers for nursery education, has been appointed to the Prime Minister's Downing Street Policy Unit caused many a pre-school professional's heart to miss a beat this week.
Downing Street's insistence that his brief as one of John Major's personal policy advisers would have nothing to do with education is unlikely to calm the jittery nursery lobby, near-unanimously against a market free-for-all in the sector.
It remains to be seen whether the former banker will be able to keep quiet on the subject.
After all, ministers and civil servants charged with consulting widely on the PM's "cast iron" commitment to provide nursery education for all four-year-olds may seek a tete-a-tete.
"He is a very innovative thinker and I am sure he will make a valuable contribution to the Downing Street Policy Unit," said Dr Madsen Pirie, president of the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, which published the pamphlet.
Mr Soskin, a graduate of Oxford University and Harvard Business School, has all the credentials of a free-market Thatcherite. He took issue with former Premier Edward Heath in The Times last October 12 for fighting four elections on the centre ground and losing three.
"Margaret Thatcher put clear blue water between herself and Labour," he wrote from his Hampstead home. "She won all three general elections into which she led the Conservative Party. John Major should learn the lessons of history. "
Mr Soskin's pamphlet, Pre-schools for All: A Market Solution (see The TES, January 13) advocates handing over all nursery education to the private sector.
"The Government should move swiftly to freeze all council spending on primary schools' under-five provision. Existing classes should be phased out, perhaps over a three-year period," he writes.
His 11 Asquith Court independent nursery schools have already invested more than Pounds 10 million on under-fives in and around London, and he hopes to build a chain of 200 in Britain. Asquith Court, which also has five prep schools, made an operating profit of Pounds 500,000 on a turnover of Pounds 5 million in 1992 .
Mr Soskin is talking to authorities likely to contract out nursery facilities. With 32,000 children in LEA day nurseries, the market could be worth Pounds 200 million-plus.