More places, more funding and more commitment forge a new British early years programme. Alison Brace reports.
IT is being called the "quiet revolution". Since Labour came to power in 1997, provision for pre-school children has exploded.
Every four-year-old in the country is now entitled to a free part-time nursery place and last month the Government announced that every three-year-old will have access to five two-and-half hour sessions a week by 2004.
This month brought news of plans for nurseries in disadvantaged areas for babies and toddlers. Early learning partnerships, bringing together the state, private and voluntary sectors now oversee pre-school needs in every local authority area.
It is a brave and bold vision - and one which is taking shape with extraordinary speed.
At last, it seems, Britain is catching up with the mainland Europe in terms of providing a comprehensive network of pre-school facilities.
But early-years specialists warn that there is still a long way to go. "The Government may as well throw away all its money if it doesn't pay attention to quality," says Wendy Scott, outgoing chief executive of the British Association of Early Childhood Education.
"There is no quick fix. You are not going to move society and children's lives forward unless you make pre-school provision the best," says Ms Scott who is joining the Department of Education and Employment as specialist early-years adviser.
This week MPs on the Commons education select committee are putting the finishing touches to their report on provision for children from birth to eight. Their recommendations are due to be published this month.
Their inquiry has taken them to Denmark and the United States. At home, they have seen the wide variety of pre-school options on offer - playgroups, nurseries, reception classes and childminding sessions.
In the eyes of Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University, it is this variety which makes it difficult to provide high-quality nursery education across the board.
"The Government creates places first for four-year-olds and then three-year-olds, but it is the parents' wish whether they take them up or not," he says. "Then you have all these different forms of pre-schooling, different levels of parental interest. As a result our children start at primary school in a very uneven way.
Some children are well ahead, but for others their first experience of school is failure and they can fall further and further behind. It is then that the gender gap and the social gap begin to open."
A uniform system of nurseries, as on mainland Europe, is a fairer system, he believes. In general, children attend kindergarten from the age of four until they are six - or even seven - and formal learning of letters and numbers is discouraged.
Instead, concentration, communication, listening and motor skills are developed.
"I think this is the basis of a fairer society," says Professor Smithers.
"It provides a much more level platform for all children to get on with formal education. In countries with this approach to learning, they talk about an explosion of reading. They have prepared the ground so well. Even though they get down to literacy later, by seven, they are streets ahead."
The latest report to support this view was published this summer by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
It argued that pressurising young children to learn about letters or numbers might be counter-productive. Being able to identify letters by the age of five, as the national curriculum requires, did not necessarily lead to better reading at 11.
But the MPs are not likely to recommend any radical streamlining of the various early-years' options despite the obvious inequality among youngstes when they start school. Neither is it likely to tinker with the national curriculum - or raise the school starting age.
A visit to Denmark, where children are not introduced to formal learning until seven, confirmed select committee chairman, Barry Sheerman, in his view that the Continental model is not one for us.
"I came away from Denmark with the feeling that the real strength of the UK system is its flexibility and diversity," he says. "Parents decide whether they want, say, a state nursery or the informality of a playgroup."
"The Danish system is impressive," he says."But actually we saw a lot of bored children. A lot of kids would have loved to have had their head in a book."
This is exactly what Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, has argued. For the child who has the capacity for learning a lot at an early age, then the opportunity must exist for them to be stimulated.
For this reason, and also to make sure that pre-school providers sing the same tune, learning goals for three to five-year-olds were established by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
The draft set, published last year, were condemned by early-years specialists - even those running government-designated centres of excellence - for trying to introduce formal learning too soon. The final set, now in use in all state-run nurseries and reception classes or any provider who accepts government cash for four-year-olds, emphasise learning through play.
Although the MPs have had positive feedback about the early-learning goals, there is still concern about the inclusion of aspects of the literacy and numeracy hour by the age of four - or earlier if a teacher feels a child is ready.
Given that baseline assessment at the start of primary school checks whether a child can write their own name and identify numbers from one to 10, some schools feel under pressure to make sure children have these skills.
The diversity that Mr Sheerman says he values is threatened by the very fact that the Government is investing in the early years. Primary schools, keen to recruit four-year-olds and the cash they bring with them, are making many playgroups feel vulnerable.
But if Britain does hang on to the variety of provision, then the key question is how to make sure that it is all of high quality. Regular inspection, of course, is one way and OFSTED is in the process of looking for a someone to fill the pound;85,000-a-year post of director of its new early- years division.
And the Government is consulting on a qualifications framework for nursery staff. The proposals, however, which suggest that only half of nursery staff need to be qualified, have been greeted with disdain by the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses.
The Government has pledged to increase the number of full-time equivalent support staff in schools, including nursery nurses, by more than 20,000 by 2002.
Looking at the quality of the people in charge of pre-schools, and the qualifications they have or should have, has been the biggest issue the select committee has had to address, says Mr Sheerman.
"What we saw ranged from people on the minimum wage with minimal training through to highly-trained professionals who were graduates," said Mr Sheerman. Although he will not be drawn on the recommendations which his committee is likely to make, he hints at the general direction when he recalls a comment made by nursery teachers.
"What amuses them is that you would never call on an unqualified plumber to repair your central heating, but people will leave their child with someone with no qualifications."
Ironing out the inequalities of nursery provision is one of the Government's main objectives.
Of that, no one is in any doubt. But until they do, it seems that some children will still be more equal than others.