Mark Whitehead reports on the council held up as Labour's early-years model and on the party's nursery pledges. The political leaders of North Tyneside are in little doubt that the nursery education on offer locally is popular. Around 95 per cent of three and four-year-olds in the area gain their first taste of education in council-run classes, yet there is still a long waiting list of children whose parents are anxious for them to join their early-learning pals.
The nursery system in the authority, which includes the towns of Wallsend, North Shields and Whitley Bay, was last week held up as a model by David Blunkett, the Opposition's education spokesman - and not only because of its popularity. It also demonstrates the pragmatic, entrepreneurial approach much approved of by New Labour.
Traditional council bureaucracy has been slashed by bringing all pre-school services - school reception classes, day nurseries, after-school facilities and the system for registration and inspection of independent services - into one department.
The children's services department provides 420 full day-care places for children up to the age of five. Half are free to families on low incomes, while wealthier parents pay Pounds 67.50 a week or Pounds 13.50 a day. The Midland Bank pays for 10 full-time places for its employees. A further 3,000 part-time places in reception or nursery classes in local authority schools are funded by the council and free to parents.
The department also works with three private nurseries, training their staff and providing other professional support. It gives around Pounds 25,000 a year to the voluntary-sector Pre-school Learning Alliance for playgroups which cater for about 1,000 youngsters, and works with Barnardo's to run two family centres which support pre-school children.
In 1991 the council won the contract to manage the 50-place nursery run for the Department of Social Security's Newcastle headquarters. And a company set up by the council, Childcare Enterprise Ltd, is now running nursery schemes as far away as Ipswich and Glasgow, mainly for government departments and NHS trusts.
The service comes at a cost of about Pounds 10 million in an area with a relatively high council tax - Pounds 785 for an average band D property. But the Labour-led council, and local residents, clearly believe it is money well spent. "Parents have always been very positive about the service," says Jackie Doughty, head of the children's services department. "Quite often the letters we get are from people who have moved into the area and are surprised at what they find.
"But there ought to be a national policy that brings some consistency to the system. What happens in North Tyneside can be developed and improved elsewhere. This country is so far behind compared with our European partners that we need a lot more provision quickly. But the key must be quality,"