The way forward
The Labour party document The Politics of the Nursery supports an education-with-care approach, and states that to achieve this "We will build on current provisionI diversity and encourage services which bring together education, play, care and support for young children and their parents. "
Any forward-thinker would embrace this and applaud the beacons of excellence quoted in the document, such as the Pen Green Centre for Under-fives and their Families in Corby, Northamptonshire, and the Margaret McMillan Centre in Islington, north London. Both are remarkably like the pioneer, turn-of-the-century nursery schools, integrating education with care, offering flexible hours, and supporting parents.
The dilemma in achieving this is whether to adopt an evolutionary or revolutionary approach to education and care. The Labour Party must urgently resolve this at the national and the local level.
Helen Penn and Peter Moss, both influential in shaping Labour policy, are going for a revolutionary approach in their book Transforming Nursery Education. They envisage communities deciding what they want, bidding for funding, new buildings, and new-style training which sweeps away teacherish approaches and schoolish ways and moves into a new Utopia.
An evolutionary approach moves on from the past and the present, but does so through adaptation. It is worth looking at what we have, and what is worth taking with us. So much has already been cut, but centres such as Pen Green (TES April 26) and Margaret McMillan (TES February 3 1995) in Islington capture the essence of what is needed: highly trained staff, a network embracing care and education, and recognition of the needs of particular communities, inclusive policies, and respect for each family and child, and at the core, a well thought-through, quality curriculum appropriate for young children.
We could try to build these afresh, but re-inventing the wheel is inefficient and exhausting. Rather than further damaging our nursery schools, so that they wither, we could use them as a way to reframe early childhood work so that it brings together care and education in ways which are fitting for the future.
The Labour Party document highlights that there will be "planned expansion to meet the varied needs of local communities". This is good news, but we must wait to see if the resources come to fund the expansion. It is followed by fainter print which says that this will be "underpinned by the necessary investment in staff training, premises and equipment." Unfortunately, it is these crucial aspects which are being cut by many councils.
The Labour-controlled London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, where I live, is proposing to close Horder Nursery School, which will shut one potential site for integrating education and care. Instead, it is opening three nursery classes in primary schools, which have poorer staffing ratios, and rarely have headteachers expert in the age phase. The recent opening of the Marshcroft Centre, however, did form the basis for an integrated approach. Having moved in this direction once, the borough needs the courage of its convictions to try again at Horder. Hammersmith and Fulham is also proposing cuts to the remaining nursery schools. For example, the nursery club at James Lee, which supports parents as well as toddlers, would have to go.
In a letter to Clive Soley MP, the local authority says the aim is to bring nursery schools into line with the nursery classes, and explains that nursery clubs are luxuries. Luxuries? Or fundamental to Labour's policies in bringing together education and care? Without these "luxuries" it will be all education and no care. Parental involvement will be just rhetoric.
Nursery schools should be a crucial opening through which to move into an integration of care and education in cost-effective and practical ways. If enhanced and developed through the investment in staff training, buildings and equipment the Labour Party is proposing, they will be the way through which to make the first moves towards new beacons of excellence. We could have more Pen Greens and Margaret Mcmillans this way and at a lower cost than a revolutionary approach.
Tina Bruce is the author of Early Childhood Education (Hodder and Stoughton), and is a governor of the James Lee Nursery School in Hammersmith and Fulham