In the six weeks since David Blunkett became Education and Employment Secretary, education staff have had their work cut out trying to keep up with the flurry of announcements from his department. At the end of May the DFEE wrote to all chief education officers outlining its plans for the abolition of nursery vouchers. As part of the change, it said authorities should draw up "early years development plans" to explore the need for and provision of places for under-fives.
Newcastle City Council is well prepared for this move. Since 1 April 1997, the council has brought many of its services for young children which had been managed separately together in the education department.
Newcastle's new early years service includes nursery schools and community childcare projects (day nurseries) and has a range of inspection and registration functions. Out-of-school care, voluntary organisation funding and subsidising of fees also form part of the new service's remit.
Bringing services together has several advantages. The Government plans to streamline responsibilities for young children across departments. And the overlap between some pieces of legislation is unhelpful and confusing. So co-ordination makes sense.
We also need to plan provision for three and four-year-olds. Newcastle had a variety of admission arrangements for pre-school provision. More worryingly, we lacked any measure of the quality of care and education - which is increasingly demanded. Parents must be assured of standards, and this is easier in a single department.
The traditional school day does not suit some children and their families. Amalgamating services allows for a more rational look at care before and after school. It also allows for provision 52 weeks a year.
An early years centre has already been set up in one inner-city area, with the co-operation of the local community and staff of the two nurseries involved. But the council has made clear this pilot project is not necessarily a model for other areas.
Councillors have promised to consider individual schemes on their merits. This has helped reassure parents and staff. It also commits the authority to wide consultation in the early stages of any new service.
The experiences of other authorities have also been noted. Industrial relations problems have often bedevilled such attempts at co-ordination. So Newcastle has avoided imposing a single staffing structure on its institutions. Specific arrangements were negotiated for the pilot project, while the set-up in other places will remain as it its unless there is an overwhelming case for change. Teacher associations and other trade unions have been involved from the start.
The new early years service has come about because of a significant political commitment to its establishment. But such arrangements do not happen overnight. Some of the people concerned believe it has taken years to get to this point. Without the support of all those involved, progress will be rocky. And when the interests of our youngest children are at stake, we cannot afford to get it wrong.
David Bell David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council