Schools: Personally Speaking: Hundreds of playgroups are closing: what a waste

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The Independent Online
For 37 years, playgroups - or "pre-schools", as they are now called - have had enormous significance for the lives of small children in Britain. Each day of the week nearly a million children are happily engaged in pre-schools, enjoying a safe place to play and getting a good educational start in life.

What is special for these children is that their parents are also involved - sometimes helping out with reading or making dough, sometimes organising outings and fundraising, sometimes serving on the management committee of the pre-school. Children enjoy the fact that their parents are involved, and research shows that they, the children, will benefit in terms of their later educational development.

What is less familiar is how much pre-schools matter to parents. Parental involvement is a cornerstone of how pre-schools work, and research has shown the benefits to parents in improving their parenting skills, increasing their confidence and increasing the likelihood of their becoming involved in further education and training.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of adults become more assured as parents, and many are given a second chance to learn or use their involvement in pre-schools as a gateway from welfare to work. Rooted in their local communities, pre-schools have a special role to play in combating social exclusion, particularly for lone parents and others who are isolated.

Sadly, pre-schools - long part of the familiar landscape of community life - are under threat, mainly because of losing their four-year-olds to local primary schools.The introduction of nursery vouchers has led to a huge increase in schools up and down the country taking four-year- olds into reception classes for the first time. As a result, in 1997 alone, 800 pre-schools closed their doors. Despite the Government's abolition of the voucher scheme and, so far, despite the DfEE's forming Early Years Development Partnerships, pre-schools continue to close. More than 1,500 pre-schools are threatened this year because four-year-olds continue to go into reception classes.

This means that a total of 75,000 pre-school places could be lost within two years, something which Britain, with its scant stock of early years provision, cannot afford. In fact, the cost of providing these places in schools and local authority nurseries would be more than pounds 150m each year - something that ministers formulating the National Childcare Strategy may wish to bear in mind.

Meanwhile, we must be concerned about the suitability of reception classes for the youngest four-year-olds. Although some local education authorities ensure that schools are offering a good adult:child ratio and a nursery curriculum, some reception classes number 35 or more - a step backwards at a time when the Government is seeking to reduce class sizes for five- , six- and seven-year-olds, and when the evidence shows that children younger than five learn best in small groups with plenty of adults on hand.

Pre-schools matter. The waste of such a precious resource should be of concern to government, to local authorities and to the public at large. Pre-schools are already out there delivering the Government's agenda, whether it is giving children an educational head start, improving parenting, combating social exclusion, or promoting lifelong learning. The survival of pre-schools is crucial if these valuable policy objectives are to become a reality.

Parents already know the value of pre-schools and are backing the "Pre- schools Matter" campaign which is being led by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, supported by celebrities, parliamentarians and other leading people in Britain, and which is being launched today at the House of Commons.

The writer is chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance.