Education: Goodbye to Joyce Grenfell as playgroups head towards extinction

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The Independent Online
Eight hundred pre-schools or playgroups have closed during the last two years and a further 1,400 believe they are in danger of closure within the next 12 months.

Judith Judd, Education Editor, reports on a crisis for early years facilities which comes despite the Government's abandonment of nursery vouchers.

After 36 years of service to under-fives, the playgroup movement is in serious decline. The groups, which employ trained staff but are managed by parents, are struggling to survive.

Last night, leaders of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said it was ironic that thousands of places for three- and four-year-olds were disappearing just as the Government was trying to boost pre-school education. Figures from a survey released today by the alliance show that more than 2,200 of the 19,000 playgroups are likely to have disappeared by next summer with the loss of 75,000 places. Normally, only about 150 a year would be expected to close because of demographic changes.

One West Sussex group which closed in the summer has left a disabled four-year-old boy without any form of pre-school education. The groups are being killed off by competition from local primary schools which are packing four-year-olds into classrooms that are sometimes neither appropriately staffed nor equipped to cope with them.

The admission of four-year-olds to schools has been increasing slowly for many years but the introduction of nursery vouchers, worth pounds 1,100 a child, gave schools a financial incentive to recruit more.

Ministers have abolished nursery vouchers. Instead, local authorities have to produce plans to show how they will provide nursery education for all four-year-olds. These plans are meant to include playgroups and private schools as well as state schools and nurseries. But Margaret Lochrie, of the alliance, said: "Whatever ministers may say, nothing has changed the inherent competition for funding. The interim local authority plans that were approved mostly gave places to four-year-olds in reception classes.

"It is crazy. Here we have playgroups which are doing a good job. They are going out of business at a time when ministers want an enlargement of the whole sector for three- and four-year-olds."

Research had shown, she said, that playgroups' distinctive contribution to education in the early years was the involvement of parents who learn to understand their children and become more confident.

Bewbush Poppets Pre-School in West Sussex closed at the end of last term, the fifth in the neighbourhood to do so. The group had been in existence for 14 years and catered for 41 children five mornings a week.

When nursery vouchers were introduced, the local school changed its admission policy to admit four-year-olds. That released places in the nursery for three-year-olds. Only seven children remained at Bewbush.

One was a boy with gross motor-skills deficiency who had been cared for by a specially trained assistant at the playgroup and who now has no pre-school place.

In Cheshire, St Saviour's playgroup in Great Sutton, open for 16 years, will also close shortly. It used to meet in the local school but the latter now needs the room because more children are being admitted to the reception class. Helpers have tried and failed to raise the money for new premises. Only three-year-olds remain in the playgroup because four-year-olds are now admitted to school.

Estelle Morris, the schools minister, said: "We will achieve our commitment for a nursery place for every four-year-old by sensible joint planning at local level, not the bureaucratic nightmare of a wasteful and divisive nursery voucher scheme which caused destructive competition between providers and led to the closure of many pre-schools."

The Government would not look favourably on plans for early years education which had not been developed by local authorities in partnership with private nurseries and playgroups, she said.

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