The Education Minister claims that the financial arrangements for pre-school provision will raise standards, tackle social exclusion and support working parents. Making a place available for every four-year-old whose parents want it will indeed be of great benefit to youngsters, and Primary 1 teachers should see the positive results. Discrimination against children from poor backgrounds starts early; so education and structured care, at least from four, will help prevent young primary pupils being branded as failures almost before their lives have begun.
Brian Wilson's third aim, however, will not be addressed by this week's funding package. All that is offered is a free part-time place during school terms. While welcome, that will not help working parents who need full-time places all year round. The Government is trying to get more adults into work. The Chancellor's New Deal and Frank Field's proposed reconstruction of the benefits system are intended to achieve that goal. Part-time pre-school places will not help much, although full-time workplace nurseries would.
The local authorities have responsibility for making enough four-year-old places available. Ideally, the contributions of voluntary organisations and private providers should be recognised, but in the increasing number of areas where council provision is, or shortly will be, adequate, there is a question mark over the two other "partners". Private providers, who have expanded in recent years, face a challenge. Why would parents pay for a part-time place which they can get free from the local authority nursery (just as they have had it free this session at the private nursery through a voucher)? In better off communities, where the private nurseries are mainly concentrated, a new pattern may emerge. The private sector will cater mainly for the under-fours, and it will look to working parents for its older pupils because they can stay all day and during school holidays.
The Government has the problem of imposing a national structure on local differing needs and circumstances. Despite its commitment to removing social exclusion, it appears unwilling to push forward with the combined nursery schools and care centres pioneered by Strathclyde Region. Implementing a social strategy is left to financially stricken local authorities such as Glasgow. The one sector given special help is rural communities where, if partnership is to have a meaning, voluntary organisations ought to be given the chance to share in the pound;4 million available.