Mums and dads come out to play

British parents are being left out of nursery education, say the experts - particularly compared to their French counterparts. Next week, a new campaign is launched to put this right. Sarah Cassidy visited Paris to see what lessons we could learn
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Early years education has been a Cinderella, neglected by government for decades. The outcome was that British parents seized the initiative and set up their own pre-school groups for under-fives. But since Labour swept to power in1997 state money has been pouring into the early years, and the experts are now questioning whether parents are being elbowed out of the picture.

Such concern underlies a campaign to be launched next week by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the leading pre-school charity, which is urging ministers to strengthen the role of parents in the education of under-fives. The alliance is holding up France as the shining example. France has a strong tradition of state provision but parents are able to start their own nurseries with some funding from the state. That gives them more influence over their children's education.

"We believe that more must be done to match childcare to the needs of children and families and to recognise the importance of parents as their children's first educators and as the main influence on their behaviour," says Margaret Lochrie, the alliance's chief executive. "We also believe that childcare, where it offers opportunities for participation by parents, can help to build strong communities."

The failure to set targets to increase parental involvement has been a "serious omission" by ministers, she says.

She wants to see parents involved in their children's nurseries by becoming a school governor or joining a separate class for parents in, say, literacy or cooking or first aid. These are designed to improve mothers' and fathers' confidence or skills.

The philosophy of parental involvement has been part of the Alliance's mission since its inception 40 years ago. It was founded after Belle Tutaev, a young mother in London became concerned that her four-year-old daughter was missing out on social contact with other children and that there was a dearth of state nursery provision. She wrote to a national newspaper and received hundreds of replies from parents in the same position. In 1962 the Association of Pre-school Playgroups, a forerunner to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, was formed. Today the Alliance has 17,000 pre-schools providing early education for nearly 750,000 under-fives.

The growth of the pre-school movement coincided with an increasing public acceptance of the importance of early education, helped by research showing that groups founded by parents were not necessarily inferior to state-run nurseries.

A study by Bristol University academics in 1987 showed that children attending community-based playgroups did just as well academically in later life as those who attended state nurseries.

However, the Alliance argues there is still a lot to be done and it is particularly worried that the Government's pledge for free nursery places could actually work against some parent-run groups. New Labour has ploughed hundreds of millions of pounds into the early years. It has laid on free places for all four-year-olds and set targets for this to be extended to all three-year-olds by 2004.

While that should increase the number of childcare places, educationalists fear that some groups could go out of business in the competition to enrol the sought-after three- and four-year-olds who bring in funding – cutting the total number of places available for younger children.

Last autumn a report by the Social Market Foundation, an influential think tank, called for greater parental involvement in the sector. Gillian Penlington, its author, argues that although around 280,000 parents help out in nurseries and play groups across Britain, there is scope for twice as many to do so.

Her research found that children with high quality pre-school education go on to do better at school, are less likely to turn to crime and more likely to win high-paid jobs than other children. "These benefits are felt most strongly by children whose parents take an interest in their early education," she says. "But parents themselves benefit from getting involved. Studies from Britain and America show that parents who volunteer at local pre-school centres have improved self-confidence, a higher take-up of training and education, greater levels of employment, better mental health and a more active role in the community."

The problem is that pre-schools are ambivalent about – or in some cases hostile towards – involving parents. They feel that parents could undermine their authority. Some professionals even regard parents as part of the child's problem, holding them responsible for bad behaviour.

Sir Christopher Ball, whose influential report Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning was published for the RSA in 1994, accepts that some early years workers may try to shoulder parents out of the picture. "We run the risk that professionals might try to push parents out of the equation," he says. "It is all about balance. Good nursery education is run by professionals but has to involve parents as a child's first educator. If you push parents out of the loop you run the risk of failing the child."

Alison Johnston, of the Professional Association of Teachers, a union representing many early years workers, acknowledges that some nurseries and pre-schools are nervous about parental involvement. Ideally, it is good to engage parents in their toddlers' education but, in practice, there may be problems, she says. "Obviously it is good to have the support of parents right from the beginning but we have to appreciate that parents place their children in nurseries for different reasons," she says. "Some are going out to work. Their degree of involvement is going to vary. The ideal is to have a good partnership but what actually happens, to a certain extent depends on how much involvement the early years setting wants."

Unsurprisingly, Ofsted inspectors have found that parents from affluent neighbourhoods are more likely to volunteer in local nurseries than families from deprived communities. However, research by NIACE, the adult education organisation, concludes that adults from all backgrounds could benefit – not just middle-class mothers keen to get back to work.

Alan Tuckett, the association's director, was so impressed by the research findings that he agreed to become the Alliance's president in 2000. He believes that the pre-school mission dovetails with the crusade to tackle poor levels of adult skills in literacy and numeracy.

Some pre-schools don't need any persuading about the need to engage parents. Pauline Hatherill, head of First Steps nursery in Bath, believes a nursery can only really help a child if it involves their parents. She runs classes for mums and dads that have enabled many to progress to advanced training courses or back into work.

In the six years since First Steps opened, 53 parents have gone on to training courses and 47 have gone into work. Three are currently studying for A-level standard childcare qualifications and hope to launch their own careers in early education. "Parents are the first educators of their children," she says. "If it is an 'us and them' relationship you are not going to help the child."

'In France we are trained to work with parents'

For Fabrice Petrilli, working with parents is a vital part of his job. He is the co-ordinator at two pre-school centres serving deprived communities in a town just north of Paris. The two nurseries – each taking 16 two- and three-years-olds – are run by a local association and governed by management boards of parents. M Petrilli's role is to help and advise parents but it is they who make the decisions about running the centres.

The differences between the French and English education systems shape the nature of each nation's early years provision. In France formal education and the involvement of the ministry of education begins when children start school at six. For under-sixes there are state kindergartens for three- to five-year-olds, but attendance is optional.

M Petrilli became involved in the nurseries, Les Petits Lutins, or Little Imps, when his own children now seven and five started there and he chose them because he wanted to be involved. His groups are based in apartments in low-rise blocks of social housing in Garges Sarcelles, an ethnically diverse town near Paris, and Goussainville, a town of 27,000 with a large Turkish community.

Parents pay around £100 a month for full-time child care – the fees are set as a proportion of the family's income so that the low-paid and unemployed are not excluded. M Petrilli says: "Parents have a more minor role in the running of the crèche but a major part in the activities of the association. When they join, we make it clear that we expect them to be very involved.

Myriam Metsa, 26, a mother of two who became president of the parents' management board after her eldest child enrolled at the crèche in 1994, believes this opportunity to take part boosted her confidence and enabled her to get more involved in other aspects of community life. "I was able to participate in the everyday life of the crèche and bring new ideas into the association."

Karima Coste, 28, mother of three children aged six, two and three months believes that the strength of the association is in enabling parents from various cultures to exchange ideas about education and child rearing. "The crèche has allowed me to see my children grow in an ideal environment and allowed me to meet families from different cultures."

Fabrice admits that some professional child care workers do not welcome the prospect of working with parents. "Some professionals are saying I am trained to work with children, not with parents. But things are changing.