Next month, the Office for Standards in Education is due to report to the Secretary of State on the introduction of the nursery vouchers scheme. In its remit is the experience of the many four-year-olds in reception classes. A debate has raged for years on whether four-year-olds should be treated as the youngest in an infant school, tagging on the coat-tails of the national curriculum, or whether they should be recognised as nursery children with their special educational needs.
Wendy King, governor at Christchurch primary school in Bradford, Avon, is in no doubt: "Four-year-olds are at a different developmental stage,'' she says. "They need to be treated differently." But can this be done on a gross capitation of Pounds 1,100 per child? - all that the vouchers provide.
Infant and junior children, who are thought to thrive on a much higher adult: child ratio, attract formula funding of more than twice as much. Children in nursery classes attract Pounds 300 more than the voucher. Vouchers, whose administration is complex and contentious, are meant only to cover the costs of part-time education. But many reception classes offer the possibility of full-time education, particularly because they also include the rising fives, who will reach the statutory age for education during their reception year.
Schools are questioning how the full-time teachers needed for these children can be afforded on the voucher scheme. It seems to Mrs King that schools will have to either subsidise reception classes by cutting staff in Years 1-6 or teach young children in large classes.
For Margaret Morgan, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' working party on early years and head of Cornist Park county primary school in Flint, Flintshire, the issue of funding through vouchers is not the main one. Her concern is that education authorities are responding to the introduction of vouchers and parental pressure in a fast and unplanned expansion.
Flintshire has provided for four-year-olds in its reception classes for the last 10 years with discretionary funding. For such authorities, the voucher money may cover some of the cost of employing advisers, training staff, and ensuring the correct adult:child ratio of 1315:1.
In schools such as Cornist Park, where early years work has always had the support of the head, there is, says Ms Morgan, "a good educational experience for young children''. But it is one, she agrees, that cannot be bought for Pounds 1,100 a year.
At OFSTED, director of inspection Jim Rose points to the 1992 report, First Class, to show how satisfactory services for children in reception classes can be. That report found that 80 per cent of lessons were satisfactory or good (a higher proportion than found in any other educational sector). That was an improvement on a 1988 HMI report, which found that only a few infant classes demonstrated work that suited young children's needs.
Still, the 1992 report identified significant weaknesses in the services inspected. Fewer than half of the teachers fully exploited the educational value of play. Safe, separate and stimulating space for outdoor play was rare.
In the less satisfactory classes common weaknesses included too much time spent on basic management; control dominating teaching; a lack of adult involvement in children's learning; and a supervisory rather than a teaching role for staff.
Conversely, good teaching used many strategies, a high ratio of trained adults to children and adult-child discussion in large and small groups. No surprises there, you may think. But remember, in 1992 HMI visited just 88 schools in 41 LEAs. By autumn 1997, it looks as if practically all four-year-olds in Wales will be in reception classes, many of them in schools which have not been used to such young children.
Pat Davies, head of the early childhood unit at Children in Wales, is pessimistic about this trend. She points to the HMI report of 1994-5 surveying provision for under-fives in playgroup and maintained sectors in Wales. Ninety per cent of all four-year-olds were being educated in state schools, 70 per cent of those full-time. While many of these were in reception classes, many more in the rural areas were in mixed-age groups, so that four-year-olds were with classmates aged up to seven.
The report looked at all forms of services and concluded that teaching and learning were most effective in nursery classes (which educated only five per cent of the age group attending).
Forty per cent of reception classes needed to be improved; a quarter of them and more than half the mixed-age classes needed to use resources better; a fifth of teachers needed to update their skills; and standards of work needed raising in all curriculum areas. Space for play and activities was limited.
Resources, too, were not suitable for young children, a weakness that often reflected the lack of knowledge or training on the part of heads and teachers. Will extending the service through voucher funding just enlarge this inadequate structure?
"I would have preferred the Government to put thought into training and support, rather than administering a scheme which is going to complicate things unnecessarily in Wales, where 70 per cent of three to four-year-olds are in school,'' says Ms Davies.
She points to the Start Right report, by Sir Christopher Ball, published in 1994 by the Royal Society for the Arts. Drawing on the work of such early-years gurus as Professor Kathy Sylva from the Institute of Education and Gillian Pugh from the National Children's Bureau, Sir Christopher recommended that "free, high-quality, half-day pre-school education'' within "an integrated context of extended day-care'' should be made available to all by 1999.
Admitting that pre-school education is in society's interests because it produces productive citizens, the report concludes that the most compelling reason to open nurseries is "because it is right''. It is nothing short of a national scandal, Sir Christopher concluded, that 22 years after Margaret Thatcher accepted the principle of nursery education, many children are still being deprived of their right start in life.
Controversially, Start Right suggested that free half-day pre-school education be funded by raising the age when compulsory schooling begins from five to six, bringing Britain into line with the most of Europe. It is doubtful whether parents would stand for having their free child minding eroded like this, just as it is doubtful whether any government will find the political will to subsidise another form of day-care or implement the report's other recommendations.
But Jim Rose is optimistic. "Vouchers have brought a stronger analysis to bear on the four-year-olds' curriculum,'' he says.
At best, this is a weak substitute for that intense professional demand for double competence, in teaching and child development demanded of early-years' teachers, by Sir Christopher Ball. At worst, it looks like move over in the home corner and pack away the sand, it's time to line up again.