Invest in the early years

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The Labour Party will announce next week an inquiry into early years services. Our inquiry will examine how Labour's long-standing commitment to expand nursery education can be developed to ensure an educational environment in all services for you ng children.

Such a service will benefit parents, families, local communities, employers, society at large and above all children, giving them a good start in life and providing a sound foundation for educational progress.

Working with specialists and providers in the private, voluntary and statutory sectors, we will develop proposals that build on the diversity and good practice that already exists. From Strathclyde to North Tyneside to some of the London boroughs, public, private and voluntary providers are developing models of an integrated service on which we can build a national policy.

We alI know that it is common sense to invest in the early years of a child's life. The test results for seven-year-olds published this week show that nearly one in four are behind in numeracy and literacy skills, even at that tender age; high-quality nursery education would improve those results and subsequent life chances. Research in the United States has shown that every $1,000 spent in the early years of a child's life saves $4,000 in later public spending on everything from special needs education to social security support.

There is simply no excuse for Britain lying bottom of the European league in terms of our support for publicly funded nursery provision. It is economic and social nonsense.

Last year John Major pledged at the Conservative Party Conference that a place in a nursery class would be available for all four-year-olds whose parents wanted it. That seemed to end Conservative hostility to under-fives education. Forget the scandal that Margaret Thatcher had given a better pledge a generation earlier, when in 1972, as Education Secretary, she promised nursery places for both three- and four-year-olds. At least something was going to happen - or so we were told. Yet the only concrete development since last year's Conservative Conference is that the monies available to train nursery teachers has been cut, making a mockery of the promises given.

Then earlier this week there was a leak suggesting that Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, intended to allow nursery schools to recruit unqualified teachers, showing that their plans have not been thought through.

At the same time, the Adam Smith Institute and Sheila Lawlor, the right-wing architect of many Conservative education policies, have been busy writing about the under-fives. Both are ideologically opposed to local government; both want to focus only on private-sector nurseries and vouchers for parents. But spending limited public monies on vouchers does nothing to create more places.

Even if something does emerge from the Government in the coming weeks it will be too little, too late; and it will meet yesterday's agenda, rather than today's needs. Traditional nursery education is no longer enough to meet the needs of both children and parents - 46 per cent of mothers with children under school age work, and that figure is rising. While in 1980, 80 per cent of parents relied on relatives to help with their childcare needs, today most working parents need formal childcare services.

We want to look forward to the needs of tomorrow, not the needs of yesterday. We know it makes sense to invest early in our young children, and unlike the Government we know that quality counts.

So we need to develop services that harmonise the needs of children and their working parents. That involves breaking down the traditional barriers between child care and nursery education. It means creating an integrated and comprehensive service which is child-centred and education-focused, but which meets the needs of both children and their parents. It means looking at services from birth upwards.

At present, too many parents have to shuffle their young children every day between childminders, nurseries, playgroups and schools, and little attention is paid to the quality of what the child experiences.

The 3.8 million children who are under five today are the parents and workforce of tomorrow; their future is central to our purpose today.

The writer is leading Labour's inquiry on the under-fives.