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Unique benefits of the nursery

Working with young children in the inner city, I often look back to my own urban childhood and remember, nostalgically, the freedom we had. The sheer fun of growing up - running, jumping, being mischievous; all in a safe environment. We played in a street blocked off from traffic (not that there were many cars) and the neighbours watched out for us and each other.

Today, life seems much more complicated. Instead of skipping children, our streets are full of traffic. Neighbourhoods and family life have changed radically and fears about child safety have been multiplied by television and the other mass media.

As someone who has spent 22 years working in inner-city nursery schools, 16 of them as a head, I have tried to ensure children are offered the same safe, happy environment and opportunities for play, that I enjoyed as a child. Where the hub of activity was once the street, it is now the nursery school.

Why, then, should nursery schools be under threat? The trend towards closing them in favour of integrated children's centres, or encouraging children to start school sooner, is short-sighted. Children's centres can bring advantages, but we should beware of them becoming big and unmanageable. Think back to the development of comprehensives and how huge some of them are. Do we really want that for three and four year-olds?

And yes, it's cheaper to put four year-olds into reception classes, but the benefit of nursery school to both child and parent is immense. The new foundation stage is a welcome recognition of the approach needed in the early years of learning.

Most nursery schools are still small enough to give the personal touch. They remain the best means of ensuring today's children get the happy, carefree start in life they deserve.

Ann Abd El Kader is head ofSt Anne's nursery school in Kensington and Chelsea, London

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