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Leading article: Don't sacrifice our four-year-olds to an election pledge

DISTURBING NEWS from the Allsorts playgroup in Weymouth, Dorset. The supervisor, Denise Pinney, says that her playgroup is losing its four- year-olds to the local schools, which are introducing "pre-school" classes to capitalise on the Government's commitment to education for the under- fives, and the funding that goes with it. Nor is the Allsorts playgroup alone. The Pre-School Learning Alliance claims that as many as 1,700 playgroups are in jeopardy this year, and that a total of 6,000 could close by 2002 if ministers fail to take action. This represents a loss of about a third of the total number of such groups. It should not be dismissed as special pleading by nursery campaigners. It goes to the very heart of the whole issue of educational standards. The standard - and suitability - of pre- school education is one of the main determinants of a child's later educational achievement and thus its prospects in later life. It is crucial.

The minister responsible, Margaret Hodge, disputes the nursery lobby's figures but agrees that the situation is "worrying". So it is. Common sense suggests that not all four-year-olds are equally suited to going to school rather than to a playgroup. There is at least as wide a variety of social skills and abilities at that age as at any other. Curriculum- based learning does not suit all. The Government is keen to promote diversity in other stages of education, but there is a clear danger that there will be less choice available to parents of the very young. There are unwelcome signs that parents are being coerced into accepting a school's offer of a place at four years for their children as the surest way of securing entry to the primary school.

The introduction of the minimum wage is also a complicating factor. Playgroups are largely voluntary, but some do employ staff. It is right that those employees should receive a fair wage. But the price of that will be higher fees passed on to parents and the risk that playgroups will be restricted to the offspring of those on comfortable incomes. The notion of educational apartheid being implemented at such a young age is profoundly disturbing.

The Government's guarantee of places in education for all four-year-olds and for a doubling of places for three-year-olds (to 190,000 by 2002) is, of course, welcome and long overdue. But excessive concentration on a narrow performance target again jeopardises the real point of the Government's policy - to increase choice, encourage diversity and raise standards.

Mrs Hodge has pledged pounds 500,000 to "tide over" playgroups until the working families tax credit gives parents more money to spend on playgroup fees. There will be an independent inquiry. All welcome, but the Government should not mistake such moves for an effective policy. The playgroups deserve to be treated seriously.