"Education, in this country, is very narrowly equated with schools," explains Margaret Lochrie, chief executive officer of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. "People constantly underestimate the importance of parents, and overestimate the importance of teachers. Changing our name will help us to compete."
The alliance is, she says, feeling "fairly upbeat" about itself. Its membership has risen from 15,000 playgroups four years ago to almost 20,000 today (which represents about 80 per cent of all playgroups), catering for almost 800,000 children in this country. Last month, the alliance won its battle with the Government to be funded on an equal footing with nursery schools in the new nursery voucher initiative, instead of receiving only half the voucher value of pounds 1,100.
But although the alliance is putting its best foot forward, there are serious concerns, too, that will be aired over the next few days: the lack of capital grants for new groups to set up; the urgent need for investment in training; the growing threat posed by schools opening their reception classes to children only just four. Will the advent of nursery vouchers bring more money into playgroups, or will the playgroups - or "pre-schools" - find themselves squeezed out?
Fighting its corner is nothing new for the playgroup movement. It came into existence in the early Sixties when mothers, despairing of the shortage of nursery classes, decided to set up their own groups. The movement has been battling for funds ever since: although some playgroups receive help from their local authority, most are parent-run and parent-funded, surviving on a combination of fees (pounds 2 per session, on average) and fund-raising.
They occupy the cheapest premises - village halls, church halls, or sometimes, if they are lucky, an empty classroom in a school - and make do with whatever toys and equipment come their way. As for their staff, there is no legal requirement for training, but the alliance recommends that at least half should have its own diploma in pre-school practice (which takes a year to complete and costs up to pounds 175).
At worst, playgroups are sometimes regarded as amateurish organisations, run by mothers who want a chat and a cup of coffee. At best, they can provide as high a standard of education and experience as a good nursery school.
But if schools are taking children early and the private sector is busily opening more nursery schools, does it matter if playgroups or pre-schools go into decline? Have they run their course?
The fact is that although there has been some increase since the Sixties in the number of nursery places in the state and private sectors, there is still a great shortfall. Playgroups are still very much needed and in some parts of the country there is simply no alternative.
"Nursery schools are much better resourced than we are and have more trained nursery teachers," says Mrs Lochrie. "But one of the advantages we believe we offer is the involvement of parents. We build parents up to really take part in their child's education, and because of the high ratio of adults to children, the children get a lot of one-to-one attention."
Lesley Abbott, principal lecturer in early years at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has researched provision for the under-fives, has found a wide variation in the kind of environment offered by playgroups and in the quality of staffing, although there is, she says, some excellent work going on. Training, she believes, rather than dowdy premises or second- hand equipment, is the key issue in bringing all pre-school provision up to a good standard. "There needs to be accessible, flexible early years training, to which everyone working in this field is entitled."
But with funding so scarce, some playgroups are losing staff because of low pay (average, pounds 2 per hour). New research by the alliance indicates that among families of 800,000 under-fives now attending playgroups, up to a quarter are struggling, or failing, to pay the fees. Next month the alliance will launch an appeal to help these families, seeking to raise pounds 1m over the next 18 months.
Nursery vouchers, in theory at least, could inject some much needed cash. With 200,000 four-year-olds now in playgroups, this could mean a boost of more than pounds 200m but only if all of them stay until the term when they are five. Children from better-off families might he tempted away to now private nurseries, where the voucher would cover perhaps half the fees. but a bigger threat to playgroup numbers is the trend for local authorities to admit all their reception class children in the September after their fourth birthday, thus ensuring that all of them receive nine terms of education before they are tested at seven.
Gillian Pugh, director of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau, is among those concerned about this trend, because most reception classes are not geared to four-year-olds and cannot give them the kind of attention they need. But nursery vouchers, she says, will encourage more schools to open their doors to younger children because of the financial incentive.
Mrs Lochrie, of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, hopes that parents will resist taking up school places until their child is almost five, but this seems unlikely to happen in any area where there is pressure on school places, because parents will be unwilling to risk losing the place altogether.
The number of four-year-olds in playgroups is already declining. To keep afloat financially, some playgroups find themselves obliged to admit younger children, from two and a half instead of three, which alters the nature of the playgroup, deprives younger children of older role-models, and demands even more in terms of training if the staff are to manage a wider age range.
This has been the situation, for example, in Hampshire, since the county council decided in 1993 to establish 400 nursery/reception classes for four-year-olds. To ease the financial problems it created for playgroups, the council has implemented a system in eight schools whereby the it pays a playgroup worker to spend the autumn term - when numbers are lowest - working in the reception class alongside the teacher. Results so far, says John Wilkinson, policy advisory officer for Hampshire, are encouraging, building links between playgroup and school, and improving continuity.
But such an arrangement, he says, could not necessarily be funded in future if schools were losing money, through nursery vouchers, to private nurseries or playgroups.
Jack and Jill's good work could take a tumble
For the past 10 years, the Jack and Jill Playgroup (above) has been happily accommodated in a spare classroom at the Mount Nod Primary School in Coventry. Not only has the playgroup benefited from a large, bright room with good facilities and access to the infants' playground, but it has also had the advantage - not enjoyed by most playgroups - of not having to pack everything up at the end of each day. The school, in its turn, has been able to keep close links with the playgroup, ensuring a smooth transition for the four-year-olds when they move into the reception class.
All this, however, looks set to change. Because of Coventry City Council's commitment to reducing surplus places in schools and providing nursery education for 92 per cent of its three-year-olds by 1997, the Jack and Jill Playgroup, along with 16 others operating in schools, is threatened with closure.
The council plans to reduce Mount Nod's 11 classrooms to 10, by demolishing an unsafe two-storey block, and to build a new nursery unit: there will be nothing left for the playgroup.
"If this happens, there will be nowhere else for many of these children to go," says Ann Cummings, a Pre-School Learning Alliance branch tutor. Whereas the playgroup offers 100 places - older children coming for three sessions, and younger ones, from two-and-three-quarters, for two sessions a week the nursery class will have only the equivalent of 26 full-time places, or 52 part-time. There is no other playgroup close at hand, and no church hall or community buildings into which Jack and Jill could move.
The playgroup is mounting a campaign, with the support of local residents and several city councillors, to fight closure. For the playgroup, it would appear, is thriving.
"Before I brought my children here, I thought it would be all play, and a bit amateur," says Eve Jones, the playgroup's chairwoman, who is studying for the Pre-School Learning Alliance diploma. "But it is well organised: they learn through play and cover all the basic skills to do with colour, shape and numbers."
The Jack and Jill Playgroup is the first in Coventry to be accredited to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, in its drive for quality assurance. It was also recently runner-up in Practical Parenting magazine's playgroup competition, boosting its finances with pounds 500 worth of free Fisher Price toys. Otherwise, salaries and rent (pounds 4 per session) are met by playgroup fees (about pounds 2 a session), and fund-raising (about pounds 500 a year) covers everything else.
Val Jones, who has the alliance diploma, has been leader of the playgroup for 16 years. She has two full-time and two part-time staff, who have all completed short playgroup training courses, plus one parent-helper on a rota basis, giving an adult-child ratio of one to six. But the playgroup's main problem is convincing the city council that it can provide an adequate pre-school education.
An education spokeswoman for the council says: "We believe the evidence shows that nursery education is a better preparation for school than playgroup because it has the advantage of trained nursery teachers."
David Weston, the headteacher of Mount Nod primary, is caught between two stools in wanting to support the new nursery class and the playgroup.
"I have been very pleased with the work of the playgroup. I am trying to campaign for there to be community provision on this site for it to continue. The two could then co-exist, with the playgroup feeding children into the nursery class."
Coventry City Council has yet to make up its mind.
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