The arrival of private-sector chains of nursery schools has been widely reported, most recently by Sir Christopher Ball, author of the 1994 Start Right report on the importance of the early years experience. He is deputy chair of the Jigsaw Group, which has 14 nurseries employing 400 staff. Other major players include Leapfrog, which plans to operate 60 nurseries over the next five years. Nord Anglia, the schools supply company, also has a fast-growing nurseries division.
The Government's pledge to improve childcare has prompted a rash of nursery investment but has also led businesses into a more altruistic role.
Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association of Early Childhood Education, says there has been a growth in business links in the under-fives sector, particularly as the Office for Standards in Education has looked at schools' links with their community and local businesses. A drawback has been that the gap between the haves and have nots has widened.
"In underprivileged areas there may not be so many businesses to tap into. But nursery schools are increasingly interested for financial reasons. And some companies will second staff to act as governors. Running nursery schools has become more sophisticated and business can help," she said.
Kathryn Solly, head at Chelsea Open Air Nursery, discusses strategy and management issues with her business mentor, a senior manager at management consultants Bain and Co in The Strand. "It has proved very useful," she said. "He has learned a lot about schools and education and I have learned a lot through his management skills. It is useful to have someone neutral to call on."
Chelsea Open Air also receives help from local bookshops, which provide books, story-telling sessions and meetings with authors.
Through the National Trust, the children did a local project at Thomas Carlyle's House. They made a book of photographs and gained insight into how homes have changed over time. Kathryn Solly said: "If you don't look outside the school in terms of business and the community you are wasting a treasure trove."
Margaret Edgington, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said that in areas where education action zones were established business links would grow, but it was too early to know what the benefits would be.
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents 18,000 pre-schools catering for more than 850,000 children, said it was impossible to establish the extent of growth in business links.
Many companies would make donations to nursery schools and some employers paid for places for their employees' children, she said. Some stores, such as Tesco, ran schemes where purchases brought a donation.
"At local and national level there is a reasonable interplay between business and the under-fives sector," she said. "Putting money towards the education of young people is seen as a good cause."