Education Opinion: `The best start for our children is an early one'

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The Independent Online
In the Seventies, nursery education for three- and four-year-olds was a key issue. In the Eighties, with more women in the labour market, child care rose up the agenda. Now, on the eve of the new millennium, it is clear that to give our small children the best start and meet the challenges of a changing world for the family and for work, we must develop an integrated and coherent approach to the early years, and bring together child care and education.

Yesterday, David Blunkett announced to the Labour Party Conference that Labour will pioneer a model for the future which ensures the best start for every child and every parent by setting up "early excellence" centres for children in every region in Britain. What is our thinking, and what will new Labour offer families and their children?

In 1972, Baroness Thatcher, as Education Secretary, pledged a free nursery place for all three- and four-year-olds. Successive governments failed to deliver, despite the overwhelming strength of evidence that nursery education raises standards.

Instead this government, bedevilled by political dogma, launched the nursery voucher scheme against almost universal opposition. They refuse even to listen to the views of their flagship council, Westminster, who are in the pilot phase. Westminster states that market forces will not create new places, that teachers are being diverted from teaching to deal with the bureaucratic paper-chase which vouchers entail, that the quality offered is lower than that of their own nurseries, and that vouchers do not even cover the cost of a part-time place. We agree with Westminster.

Labour will maintain our pledge to replace the vouchers with an entitlement to a nursery place for four-year-olds. We will also set targets to expand nursery education for three-year-olds.

New Labour will go further and respond to the new aspirations and needs of young families. More parents of small children now have to, or choose to, work - often part time. Nearly half of all mothers with children under five work, with the figure likely to rise to 70 per cent by the new millennium. They also want to spend time with their children. What they want - and need - is choice and flexibility. Traditional nursery education, two-and-a-half hours a day, does not fit in with parents' lives. In the past, granny or an aunt would help with child care, but now more grannies return to work. Child care, if it is available, is often prohibitively expensive, so that many families, particularly single parents, are locked into dependency, although most want to work if they can get access to affordable child care.

At the same time children get a raw deal. Shunted from home to child minder, to nursery, back to child minder, and eventually home, is something we would not dream of inflicting on older children. Yet many of our very young experience this pattern daily. All this, despite our knowing that 60 per cent of a child's cognitive development occurs before the age of five.

The Conservatives believe that child care is the private responsibility of parents, with the state intervening only at points of crisis, for instance, when the child is at risk of abuse.

We know that parents are the most important educators of small children, but New Labour believes government has a duty to provide a national framework which supports parents and children, and integrates child care and education, with services delivered locally.

Hence our "early excellence" centres which represent the first step. Each centre will be different, to reflect local needs and circumstances.

The centres will offer 75 places to children from birth to five years old and will be open throughout the working day and the working year. Trained nursery teachers will work alongside other staff; parents will be able to negotiate a package of part-time or full-time attendance which meets the needs of the child and the family. Nursery education will be freed for the three- and four-year-olds, but parents will be expected to pay according to income for child care.

The centres will be a beacon for the future, leading to further developments through partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sector.

They will also provide other services, including training for early years' workers from child minders to nursery teachers; support and classes for parents; a database of local services so that parents can match child- care needs with child-care places; a child health centre; a resource centre with a toy library or a playbus for rural areas.

We want to do away with the past divisions between education, care and health. Instead of forcing parents to choose between the children they love and the jobs they need, we will provide the opportunity to choose both. Our early excellence centres are the first step in giving the best start to all our children.

MARGARET HODGE

The writer is Labour's spokeswoman on nursery education.

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