Chris Woodhead and the early-years lobby are at loggerheads over the start of formal education and nursery staff training, reports Julie Henry
MOST early-years organisations are united in wanting school entry to be delayed until age six.
Evidence to MPs conducting the education select committee inquiry has revealed near unanimity in delaying the statutory starting age.
But supporters have yet to convince Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools and head of "Oftot", the new early-years arm of the Office for Standards in Education.
"Oftot", due to start work in September 2001, will extend OFSTED's education remit to include the safety checks currently carried out by social services.
The National Early Years Network says there is a lack of understanding of early-years education at the highest levels in OFSTED.
In its summary of the evidence presented to the inquiry the Network says: "No other question posed by the committee generated such strong statements, reflecting serious concern about the conditions encountered by three and four-year-olds in school."
The number of four-year-olds in reception classes has risen by 40 per cent in the past 10 years to 355,000.
Studies of educational achievement were used to press the case for raising the school entry age - they showed that British children were outstripped by those in other European countries where the stautory school age is six or seven.
But Mr Woodhead told the select committee: "If you look at the high standards that are achieved in other countries, I think it probably has more to do with the effectiveness of teachers later on than it does to the delayed entry. OFSTED's reports on reception classes seem to me to suggest that what is going on is basically OK."
Training is also an issue on which Mr Woodhead and much of the sector disagree.
While across-the-board qualifications are called for, the chief inspector claims good people could be lost from the profession if training is imposed. New national care standards for day nurseries, expected to be issued by the Government for consultation next week, have been attacked for "dumbing down" the profession.
The new standards require no minimum experience for a nursery manager, which means a newly-qualified 18-year-old could run a nursery. They also reduce the qualifications required of staff from A-level to GCSE standard
The Care Standards Bill, which establishes the Early Years Directorate and sets national standards, also covers Wales. ESTYN, the Welsh equivalent of OFSTED, and a new body called the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales, will inspect and regulate early years.
The number of nursery nurses has risen by 16 per cent - about 3,000 - since 1997, the Government announced this week.