OPINION: investment now, vouchers later for nurseries

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Many nurseries are not yet equipped to provide education as it is described in the Department for Education and Employment's voucher package. Supporting and developing children's learning incorporates care, but relies on much more: knowledge of education issues, training and support for staff, absorbing research, new ways of organising the service - little of which can be afforded by the majority of nurseries, which are desperately trying to maintain fees at prices that parents can afford - prices that barely cover the costs of decent employment conditions for the right number of staff. There is to be no help with the additional costs of providing for children's learning in advance, so how will this suddenly become available as parents present their vouchers to nurseries next April?

If a nursery does not offer the parents a chance to redeem their voucher, then the parents will go somewhere that does and the first nursery will fail.

Parents must ask the nursery not just whether it has a programme of educational activities to cover all aspects of children's development, but how curriculum planning is linked to the observation and recording of individual children's behaviour, in order that they can be sure that their child will learn in the best possible way for him or her; is there an integrated team of teaching and nursery nursing and support staff, to ensure equal priority is given to intellectual, social, emotional and physical development?How is appropriate continuous professional development for all staff identified, not just to update their traditional skills, but to enable them to absorb and understand the implications of contemporary thought, to ensure that your child's changing needs are met authoritatively, and to ensure that staff career development is fostered, encouraging continuity in the team? Does the nursery not only identify your concerns but also understand and reflect your priorities and aspirations as a parent, as your child grows, develops and learns?

However genuine, a statement of intent is not enough. Making preparations for an inspection in a year's time is not the same as being quality assured from the outset.

My own nurseries benefit from a significant investment being made in these areas over a number of years, thanks to serious funding at the outset. Most providers that depend entirely upon parent fees for funding are single nurseries operating in isolation and need real help with accessing up- to-date information and impartial advice, and practical assistance if they are to match parents' expectations - and the entitlement of four- year-olds - as well as manage the business effectively. The provision of this support is required now, so nurseries can confidently accept vouchers and that parents are not disappointed, and do not go bankrupt as a result. It is part of the essential infrastructure that has so far been ignored, which would help the voucher scheme to succeed in its objective of expanding quality nursery provision.

The writer runs a chain of London nurseries and chairs the Childcare Association.