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US tells tigresses 'you've never had it so good'

Children's minister Beverley Hughes was lionised in New York, says Diane Hofkins.

The tigresses of the British early- years lobby are never satisfied. The sector has had billions invested in helping deprived families, offering places for three and four-year-olds and better quality assurance in day care, but they keep glancing. enviously toward Sweden and Finland.

In those lands, all children under seven can go to lovely nurseries, run by highly-trained pedagogues. Here, although the Government is planning 3,500 children's centres under the Sure Start banner, local authorities carry on closing state nursery schools. These are seen as international beacons of excellence, but they are very expensive, and there are only 480 left in the country. The tigresses growl about overly formal education for toddlers, the lack of training for teachers in child development, and the danger that two-year-olds will be drilled in phonics once the national literacy strategy is revised.

They might be amazed to discover that in the US Britain's early childhood services have made dramatic bleeps on the radar. To Americans, the UK's advances in family policy are awesome. Last month, children's minister Beverley Hughes visited New York for what the New York Times described as her "victory lap". "Just a decade ago, when America's Head Start pre-school programme for low-income famlies was already 30 years old, Britain had nothing of the kind. But now, Sure Start, its version of Head Start, is expanding rapidly, while the United States government is considering budget cuts for Head Start", the paper said.

"Other British efforts have whooshed past anything the United States has planned," it enthused, detailing Labour's universal nursery places for three and four-year-olds; 1.2 million new childcare places since 1997 and national day care standards.

"We are thrilled, and awed, by our colleagues in the UK", Sarah Watson of the Pew Charitable Trust, one of the sponsors of the conference where Ms Hughes spoke, told the New York Times.

The event was "a big boost for the Brits", Department for Education and Skills chief adviser on children's services Naomi Eisenstadt told The TES.

One of the key purposes of the conference, called "Building the Economic Case for Investments in Pre-School", was to urge American industrialists to convince their government of the link between investment in young children and a nation's future economic well-being.

Beverley Hughes "was a sort of motivational speaker", said the New York Times. She spoke of the Government's attempts to tackle "an uncomfortable truth ... who your parents are seems to have become more important, not less, in determining life chances."

Research shows high-quality early-years provision can boost the life chances of all, helping the disadvantaged and vulnerable most. Where Sure Start has an advantage over Head Start, explains Ms Eisenstadt, is that implementation is being devolved to local authorities, and will tie in with local and national priorities. Head Start is tightly controlled from the centre, amidst a highly diffuse system of local government, and does not connect with other government aims.

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