Pre-schools and playgroups are under threat all over the country as primary schools scoop up voucher cash. But in some areas co-operation not competition is the order of the day, and no one is having to close their doors to children. Emma Haughton reports
Look inside Minety Pre-school in North Wiltshire and you'll see nothing out of the ordinary. The prefab is decked out with the usual picture books, colourful posters, calendars and children's drawings, the bright and cheerful paraphernalia that adorn nurseries everywhere. But step outside and you're in the grounds of Minety C of E Primary School, a clue to a relationship now based on more than physical proximity.
Pre-schools and playgroups all over the country are reeling from the knock-on effects of nursery vouchers, as primary schools recruit voucher-bearing four-year-olds into their recep-tion classes. The Pre-School Learning Alliance predicts that 700 to 800 playgroups will soon go out of business.
At Minety, however, the introduction of vouchers heralded an era of co-operation rather than conflict: the pre-school and primary have decided to "share" the village's four-year-olds, and the funds that come with them, while forging closer links over the curriculum, policies and resources. And they expect this arrangement to survive any new funding policies devised by the new Government. Labour has pledged to return to local authorities money that has been creamed off for the voucher scheme, and in Wales it has already announced a temporary arrangement to give parents of four-year-olds a certificate to replace the pound;1,100 voucher. In England, the Government was this week expected to announce plans for distributing the funds which would include the voluntary and private sectors.
"We've worked together informally with the pre-school for a long time," says the head of Minety primary, Bernard Crooks, "but the first publicity about vouchers prompted our governors to envisage how it all might work for us. It soon became obvious that we're not in a position to create an extra classroom, and that if we admitted all the four-year-olds here and ignored the pre-school, it probably wouldn't survive. It made much more sense to co-operate and share provision."
A steering group of pre-school and primary staff and governors came up with a mutually beneficial solution: a gradual admission into school over three terms. As of September, four-year-olds will spend their first term attending the pre-school for four mornings and the school for one, changing in their second term to two mornings at pre-school and three at school; as rising-fives, all children will be offered a full-time place at school in their third term. The voucher (or post-voucher) money will be split accordingly, and there will also be joint policies on areas such as special needs, behaviour, and equal opportunities.
There are numerous advantages for the school, says Mr Crooks. "The gradual increase of time in school should also avoid a sudden jolt into full-time attendance, and we're minimising the risk of children starting pre-school elsewhere and not ending up here; this way they are likely to stay through the whole system."
He also acknowledges that the nursery can offer a better ratio of adults to children, and that its staff have the training, skills and experience in dealing with this younger age group. And as the reception teachers and pre-school leaders will plan the curriculum jointly, the school will know exactly what the children have gained at pre-school and can build on it.
The pre-school, boosted by a glowing Ofsted report and a belief in a more secure financial future, is equally upbeat about the arrangement. "Obviously it's great that we can share the school resources like the pool, playing field and computing equipment," says supervisor Jennie White, "but, more than that, we can make sure we're covering the groundwork in things like pre-reading and numeracy skills, so the children are not missing out or repeating anything when they go into the school."
The pre-school staff will work alongside reception teachers when the children go into their new classroom. "It gives them a familiar face to turn to," says Jennie White, "It's not easy for children to adjust to school. They worry about things like where to put their lunch box or go for meals, and we can help with all that, while their teacher gets to know them more gradually."
Minety is not the only place to take note of research showing that children who start primary school at a young age do less well than their older peers. In Bedford, Hazeldene Lower School and Putnoe Heights Church pre-school have joined forces to create the newly christened Hazeldene Heights Pre-school, with a formal agreement signed in April to work together more closely on curriculum, record-keeping and sharing of staff.
"With the advent of nursery vouchers, we weighed up the idea of extra accommodation for early admissions, but the budgets were not healthy and we decided both groups would be better served by working more closely together," says Hazeldene's headteacher, Robert Harris. "We didn't want a situation where we were admitting very young children when it would be best to keep them in an existing pre-school, especially as we are a large school with over 450 pupils. We have such a fantastic pre-school that the last thing we wanted to do was undermine that expertise."
Hazeldene is sticking with its autumn induction period for new pupils, and there are no plans to share voucher cash. But Mr Harris believes the arrangement still benefits the school and pre-school: it will make the transfer from nursery to full-time education even smoother, and give both confidence that they will have enough children to remain viable.
Like the staff at Minety, he is adamant that the spirit of co-operation will continue, whatever changes the Government makes to nursery funding. "They have been an incentive to really start working together on things like regular visits from the pre-school, and that can't do anything but good."