Trick or treat?

28th July 1995 at 01:00
Nursery education vouchers, imperfections and all, seem attractive because the current alternatives are so poor, argues Helen Penn.

The outcry over nursery education vouchers for four-year-olds has been widespread. The vouchers have been described as a cynical attempt to buy middle-class votes just before an election. It has been argued that they do not address the unavailability of provision in many parts of the country; that they are administratively complex; that they undermine the standards of nursery education by assuming that playgroups and private nursery care can provide the same quality more cheaply.

These criticisms underestimate the potential of a voucher system. The real issue is the lack of coherence, fragment-ation and inappropriateness of current early-years provision, as well as its underfunding (a reflection of many years of neglect by successive governments and by local authorities). In the absence of any more fundamental change, the voucher system has some advantages. It recognises the diversity of existing provision, and is a method of distributing - or redistributing - funds. But what alternatives to the voucher system have been put forward other than to suggest more state-funded nursery education or early entry to school? Are these any longer viable options?

There are already many kinds of services to young children, with different aims and objectives, different staffing arrangements, different levels of funding, and catering for different intakes of children. Two recent studies from Scotland (Wilkinson 1994, Powney et al 1995) suggest that the differences between nursery education and other forms of provision in terms of outcomes for children have been exaggerated, and that children spend their time in roughly similar ways whatever kind of provision they attend. In these studies, nursery education conferred no obvious advantages.

One explanation for this may be the short time children spend in most kinds of pre-school provision. By the age of five a child is likely to have experienced several changes of scene, from childminder to playgroup to nursery class to reception class.

Most nursery education - 88 per cent of it - is part-time. This model of delivery was laid down in the Plowden report which recommended part-time nursery education explicitly to discourage working mothers. It has become part of the accepted liturgy of education authorities that nursery education is a part-time service. Yet 52 per cent of mothers of children under five now work, and this figure is predicted to continue rising sharply. For nursery classes and schools to continue to offer part-time provision is like King Canute holding back the sea. Most European countries have prioritised services for working parents and have systems in place which provide for them, whereas the state system in the UK continues to ignore their desperation. Private day nurseries have capitalised on this absence of care for working parents and are an attractive proposition for those who can afford to pay the fees. The voucher system, however imperfect, is a Government intervention which - for the first time in the UK - does not presume that mothers will stay at home.

Early entry to school is regarded as some kind of substitute for nursery education by many local authorities. Although in England children start school at the age of four, by 16 they are outperformed by students from other countries where the school starting age is six or seven. The relationships between school starting age and later educational performance are complex, but one could also draw on evidence to suggest that early introduction to the curriculum and formal schooling alienates certain groups of children sooner and confirms their failures earlier.

Moreover, the evidence from studies of children in day care suggests strongly that group size is an important factor in determining outcomes, yet these findings do not appear to be acknowledged in education circles; a four-year-old in day care is best off in a group not exceeding l5-20 children, but the same four-year-old in a reception class may well be in a class of 30 or more. These findings about group size have, however, been incorporated into the Children Act, and at present govern regulation of the private and voluntary sector. It is not yet clear how the regulation of provision eligible for vouchers will proceed, whether through the Office for Standards in Education, through the present social services inspection system laid down in the Children Act, or a hybrid of both.

The Children Act also provides for the free support of vulnerable children "in need" in family centres and day nurseries - a congregation of disturbed and vulnerable children in a separate and stigmatised system of care. These children, about 1 per cent of all children under five, are routed away from the education system. There have been a number of recent incidents in which social workers have been asked to deal with or remove children from school, children whose behaviour at four or five years is already regarded as uncontainable by the school. This is an extraordinary reflection on our schooling system - that children so young should be excluded from it, and that we should find it unexceptional to segregate "children in need" at such an early age.

So there is a case to be made that nursery education and reception classes do not offer the best or the most appropriate service for children and their families, and that the market should be encouraged to come up with new solutions.

Critics have argued that the voucher system, because it is not accompanied by any kind of capital grants, will not lead to more provision. This may be true for small business entrepreneurs or voluntary organisations wishing to start up independent nurseries. David Soskin, founding director of a private day nursery chain and adviser to the Government on vouchers, predicts otherwise. Large nursery chains do not have the same problems of capitalisation and are poised to expand. There are multi-million-pound chains which have long-term business plans, in some cases even supported by pension funds, and the voucher system is just the fillip they need to launch their expansion.

They already offer provision for children aged up to five. The voucher system will enable them to improve their educational input by employing teachers and offering care as well as education in a more continuous and coherent way than almost anything available in the state sector. Local authorities, as some already do, could place children in need in this less segregated system.

V ouchers are attractive because the state system is inadequate. What would more appropriate provision look like? In an ideal world nursery education would be available for children aged up to five, on a part-time or full-time basis as parents chose, with parents paying for extra care over and above a core time. To use that clumsy word, it would be "multi-functional", and promote zest for learning, but also offer a service which covered the working day and working year, and offered support to vulnerable families. Children would not be segregated according to whether or not their parents worked, or whether or not their families were "in need". A child would attend the nursery for two, three or more years. The nursery education would be informal and free-standing, possibly located in schools but independent of their curricular imperatives. Those who worked in the nurseries would be appropriately trained as early-years teachers, not as primary teachers working with a younger age group. This is not a particularly novel way of looking at nursery education, and is already a common system in some countries. A few local authorities in the UK have also tried to introduce this kind of provision, much against the odds.

It is almost too late to change. We need to review, reorganise and revitalise early childhood services in the UK, and in particular to rethink nursery education - how it might be broadened and extended to incorporate care. Otherwise the private market will develop new solutions and it will be hard to undo changes which will have a popular following even if overall they engender inequality. A new government, however welcome, might find it too late to act.

Helen Penn is a senior research officer at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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