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Turning a lottery into a tombola

The more I think of it, the more difficult the Government's position over the under-fives seems to be. It is not just the money, it's the politics.

Just recall for a moment how the under-fives debate came to the top of the public agenda. The process started some four or five years ago with the publicity given to the long-term evaluation of the American HighScope and Headstart programmes. These seemed to indicate that for children growing up in areas of deprivation, high quality pre-school education could do something to reduce the risks of a later life of crime, welfare dependency and family breakdown. The programme and thus the research, were targeted at ghetto areas, and the news appeal was the association with crime, not education.

Then there followed a lot of news coverage about how under-fives are cared for in Britain compared to other European countries. This coverage was instigated by the campaigners for child care, rather than education, and was fuelled by the growing interest in and knowledge about everyday life for families in the rest of Europe. This seemed to be one area where the British were well out of step. In most other European countries free, or at least affordable, child care is available from an early age. Newspapers were not slow to point the difference which this makes to career women and single parents alike.

And then came the cautious comments from the education academics collating both American and British research and coming tentatively to the conclusion that, yes, there did seem to be some connection between nursery education - particularly for four-year-olds - and later academic success.

It is reasonable to assume that around the same time there was also private polling evidence available to all the political parties that universal nursery education could be an enormously appealing party platform. At any rate suddenly we had the parties vying with each other to be best friends with the under-fives.

The incumbent Government is always at a disadvantage in this situation. Rather than talk, it has actually to do something. Where to start?

If it were to start where Headstart and HighScope came in,under the banner of transforming life chances in the inner city, then the under-fives initiative might be conceived as a plank in the urban regeneration policy. A far-sighted government could make an important, and not crippling investment here. It would not be crippling because many inner-city education authorities have been expanding nursery places rapidly in the past few years in any case: one more push from the Government would secure near universal provision relatively quickly.The anticipated academic and social gains could then be monitored over the next 20 years. But immediately one can sense the lack of political appeal. Apart from being speculative and long-term, it suffers from "not invented here" (the LEAs are well into it already). Anyway, it seems clear the inner cities are not the important political battleground at the moment.

So what about looking at the issue from the child-care angle? (And I suspect, if I am honest, this is where the strongest public interest lies). But the problem here is that any universal provision, even any universally applied tax concessions for the costs of child care, would cost far more than appears to be available. And resources targeted on single parents run into political objections that will probably not be overcome by any rational arguments based on the recent Rowntree "Family and Parenthood" report.

But anyway the under-fives initiative was always supposed to be about education, not care, wasn't it? So what about returning to the cautious academic educational research and going for universally available education for four-year-olds as a start?

This, it appeared at first, was what the Prime Minister was proposing with his "cast-iron guarantee".

No doubt he had been advised that this could be done without incurring prohibitive costs. This is because most four-year-olds are "in education" already, as a result of the policy - operating in a growing number of LEAs despite the vociferous opposition of some nursery experts - of admitting children to the reception class of their primary school in the September of the year in which they will become five.

The view of HM Inspectorate, he would have been told, is that provided it is properly resourced, this is a sound educational policy. The qualification is important. Children this young need good adult child ratios, accessible toilets, play space separate from older children, appropriate equipment, and teachers trained for the early years - a regime, in other words, like a good nursery class.

In some schools and LEAs, this happens already. In others it doesn't. Making the best practice universal - given that the infrastructure exists already - would be the most cost-effective way of fulfilling Mr Major's guarantee.

But this is where the clamour of protest starts. First, whatever HMI may say, other experts, and most of the component parts of the under-fives lobby - the nursery schools and pre-school playgroup movement in particular - are hotly opposed to four-year-olds in reception classes. Partly this is because. obviously, they are committed to their own institutional arrangements and see any such proposal as a threat to their existence. But partly it is because they do not trust schools, under LMS, to deploy their delegated budgets so as to ensure that any additional resources actually go to the under-fives.

This problem could be circumvented by a specific grant, ring-fenced to the under-fives. But this would cut across existing funding arrangements and - in particular- across the principles of LMS. Besides, it would drag the Government dangerously into regulation and even - God forbid! - maximum class sizes. If for four-year-olds, why not five and six-year-olds as well?

And as if this were not bad enough, there are two further insoluble dilemmas. One is the Dead Weight Dilemma. Either the grant goes to all schools and LEAs - both those which are currently giving priority to under-fives (the "dead weight" costs) and those which are not. Or it targets those which have chosen other priorities and currently spend little on under-fives. The first course is fairer but produces less visible improvement. The second course is unfair - it punishes the virtuous - but it does more for the performance indicators.

The second dilemma - far more significant from a political point of view - is the Private and Voluntary Sectors Dilemma. Where does this leave them? They are expecting a share of the action as well.

All in all perhaps the best we can hope for when the proposals come out this spring is a mini-cornucopia of something for everybody - plenty of pilot schemes and partnership projects - all packaged in colourful recycled "choice and diversity" wrapping paper. Nursery education will stop being a lottery and become a tombola instead. Everyone gets something, even if it's only a plastic dummy.

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