Early start at school threatens playgroups

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The Independent Online

Some 3,500 playgroups are threatened with closure because thousands of parents are sending their four-year-olds to school, according to a survey released yesterday. Campaigners say the playgroup movement, which started nearly 40 years ago, is in danger of extinction.

Some 3,500 playgroups are threatened with closure because thousands of parents are sending their four-year-olds to school, according to a survey released yesterday. Campaigners say the playgroup movement, which started nearly 40 years ago, is in danger of extinction.

An NOP survey of 700 Pre-school Learning Alliance playgroups shows that one-quarter believe there is a "strong threat" they will close. Since 1997, when there were 19,000 playgroups, 2,000 have gone.

Campaigners say that government funding policies, which offer a place at school, nursery or playgroup to every four-year-old, are to blame. School budgets depend on the number of four-year-olds they enrol. Last year, an independent inquiry said headteachers should be prevented from pressurising parents into sending children to school too young.

Playgroups or pre-schools, which used to cater for children until they were five, are losing many as they turn four. Their supporters argue that many four-year-olds are not ready for the bigger classes and more formal teaching at school. Margaret Lochrie, the alliance's chief executive, said: "Many pre-schools are struggling to make ends meet. If this continues, there is a real danger the pre-school movement will disappear entirely within a very few years. This would be great hardship not just for the hundreds of thousands of children who attend pre-schools every day, but for the communities which they serve.

'There are a great many parents who are very concerned about their children starting primary school when they are just four. There's an issue around the age at which children start at school which is not to do with playgroups and pre schools - it's about what is rational and what is sensible."

Angela Jones, who has adaughter at Alf Hill pre-school in Alfchurch near Birmingham, has consulted a lawyer because of pressure to send her daughter to school when she turns four in September. Ms Jones has been told that her daughter cannot be guaranteed a place at the school if she waits until she is five.

She said: "At the pre-school there are 20 children with five adults. In school, she will be in a class of 26 with two adults. The idea of her in a playground with 120 children horrifies me."

Maria Bright, who chairs the 30-year-old Somerville pre-school in Chadwell Heath, near Romford, said she used to have about 30 children but numbers were down to 22, including justone four-year-old.

Ms Bright said: "We used to run five sessions a week but now it is four. A lot of parents are under the impression that if they don't get their children into the nursery they won't get a place at the school. We have a higher ratio of staff to children than the nursery."

Clare Margetts, who chairs Mortimer pre-school in Mortimer West End, a village 10 miles from Reading, said the playgroup in the next village had just closed and her group was now in danger. "Our two and three-year-olds will have nowhere to go if we close. We are in a rural setting and many parents don't drive," she said.

The Employment minister Margaret Hodge has announced an extra £500,000 to bail out playgroups. A government survey showed that 89 per cent of parents of summer-born four-year-olds were happy for their children to transfer from playgroup to reception class and 85 per cent did not feel pressured to take up the school place. Ms Hodge said: "Many parents see reception classes as good preparation for school by encouraging discipline and developing early literacy and numeracy skills."

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