'Kentucky Fried Chicken' nurseries arrive

Kindercare has provided a service for the pre-school children of the United States, but Fran Abrams wonders how it will be accepted in Britain
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The Independent Online
In the United States, they call it "Kentucky Fried Chicken". The publicity material for Kindercare, operator of 1,200 American childcare centres and now proud parent of its first British outlet, calls it "Whole Child Development".

But will it catch on here? Will British parents pay good money to a company that calls their children "Kindergartners" and nursery nurses or teachers "Caregivers"?

Kindercare is convinced it will. Its first nursery, at Callands, Warrington, Cheshire, is already open and a total of 50 are planned for the next five years. They cost about $1m to build and cater for 100 or more children.

"Whether they're singing with their class, playing outside, or just daydreaming alone, children at Kindercare have a whole lot of fun," the introductory leaflet tells parents.

Dr Sandra Scarr, chairman of the company's board and a leading developmental psychologist, is in Britain this week to promote the concept.

She sees no reason why its success in the United States should not be replicated in Britain. If she is right, Kindercare could revolutionise provision for pre-school children in this country.

Nurseries are expensive to build, Dr Scarr points out, and small nurseries are comparatively more so. If the main political parties' pledges of universal provision for the under-fives are to be met, new places are likely to be found in large centres. We may say goodbye to the operations in converted houses and church halls typical of British private nursery education.

Children are the same the world over, she says, and parents want the same things for their children. Kindercare centres are much larger than British nurseries, but this does not mean they cannot provide an intimate atmosphere or that children cannot form relationships with staff.

The one-storey buildings are divided into a number of small rooms, each with access to outdoor areas.

"It's a bit like having your home in an apartment block. Just because there are lots of other apartments around you, it doesn't mean your home isn't a home," says Dr Scarr.

"Maybe American parents have grown used to it because for 25 years we have had fairly large centres. In order to make centre care affordable you need these economies of scale."

Few adjustments have been made to the educational "program" to fit in with British culture, though the staff are all British. Senior managers who took Kindercare training courses in the United States found few cultural differences to worry about - Grimm's Fairy Tales or sand-and-water play are the same everywhere, they say.

The nursery vouchers now under discussion in this country would help Kindercare's expansion, though they are not vital to it. The move into the British market was planned two-and-a-half years ago.

However, Dr Scarr was convinced during a recent visit to Australia, which introduced a voucher scheme two years ago, that such a policy would lead to an increase in the supply of nursery places. Some British critics reply that vouchers will not mean more nursery places.

"They knew when they put in a voucher system that many families would then decide mother could afford to go to work. Now there's a childcare centre coming up on every corner," says Dr Scarr.

She is convinced, however, that there is sufficient demand for nursery places in this country to make Kindercare viable even without vouchers. Nevertheless, the company has apparently run into some difficulties in buying land and gaining planning permission.

Although large plots needed for the Kindercare concept are easy to come by in the United States, developers in Britain may make more profit by selling them for a group of houses or for shops.

Dr Scarr thinks the British government should consider zoning certain pieces of land for nursery development.

"One of the things the Government might consider is whether child care should have to compete with McDonald's for commercial land. Childcare centres can never make enough money to compete with Burger King," she says.