Why has an area so neglected in the past become so talked-about suddenly? The answer perhaps is that its time has come. Until now the Government has not kept up with changes in the British lifestyle. Women voters matter and increasing numbers are going out to work. Forty-eight per cent of women with children under five are working, part-time or full-time. What happens to their children when they are at work? Mothers, and fathers too, want to be sure their offspring are receiving the best possible care and stimulation.
"The percentage of women working has risen absolutely dramatically in the last few years," says Gillian Pugh, who has just left the National Children's Bureau to become chief executive of the Thomas Coram Foundation. "Of course it's an issue. The very large majority of families still rely on relations but, as more women work, granny will be working too and you can't rely on her to help out. We can't go on ignoring day care. People on average or below-average wages are unable to afford private nannies. That's why it's got to have some state subsidy."
Perhaps such thinking lay behind John Major's Damascene conversion two years ago at the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher had talked about a free nursery place for all back in 1972, that promise quickly fell by the wayside. In recent years the government line has been deep denial that early years education made any difference and that it was worth spending money on it. Today all has changed.
Maybe Mr Major could not shut his ears any longer to the sound of reports falling through his letterbox telling him how important the issue was. The Rumbold report (written by a former Conservative education minister) in 1990 was followed by the influential "Learning to Succeed" from the National Commission on Education in 1993, which, in turn, was followed by Sir Christopher Ball's "Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning", published the following year.
Or perhaps the Prime Minister was seduced by the striking, and much publicised, High/Scope research from Ypsilanti, Michigan, showing how much could be achieved when a group of 123 disadvantaged black children was given a high-quality pre-school programme.
That 30-year-old American project, which provides the most complete longitudinal information available of the value of early intervention, produced stunning results: the High/Scope children did better than their peers at school, spent less time in remedial classes and were less likely to drop out. As adults they were more likely to have jobs, own their own homes, be higher paid, and were less likely to have received help from social services or to have been involved in crime.
But the Ypsilanti evidence also gave a striking cost-benefit statistic - the sort of sound-bite that was short enough for a politician to remember. For every dollar invested in the children on the project, $7.16 is returned to the taxpayer through savings on the cost of juvenile delinquency, remedial education, income support and joblessness.
Other research in the US has produced a similarly upbeat message. But as Professor Kathy Sylva, of Oxford's department of education, explains, such studies do not prove that all pre-school programmes bring lasting benefits. They show simply that early education can change the course of children's lives, especially of those from deprived homes.
In Britain such research as there is shows that early education brings benefits in terms of social cohesion and children's learning. Children can advance by up to five months with nursery school. An analysis conducted for the Audit Commission by Newcastle University showed that pupils who had nursery education scored significantly higher than those who did not.
The problem is that the provision of early years services - whether in nursery classes, nursery schools, playgroups or reception classes - varies enormously in amount and quality. And there is very little available for children under three, unlike in France and Belgium.
The Government's solution has been the controversial voucher scheme which goes national in April and gives pounds 1,100 to the parents of every four-year- old to "cash" in the setting of their choice. Labour's answer is to abolish the radical voucher scheme and give half-time nursery education free to all four-year-olds with day care wrapped around and paid for by parents.
Most educationists prefer the Labour solution. But there is deep disquiet about the Conservatives' voucher scheme, particularly about the way local authorities, in anticipation of vouchers, are drawing up policies to admit four-year-olds to reception classes to claw back money taken from them to fund the voucher scheme. The result is that pre-schools are threatened with closure. This term there are 25 per cent fewer children going into the private and voluntary sector than there were last term.
"Children are being caught in a political clash," says Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance which published a survey last week. "We welcome the financial help that vouchers give to parents on low incomes but we warned the Government 18 months ago that unrestricted competition, on which the voucher scheme is based, could lead to a reduction in places, rather than an expansion."
Another reason for concern about the shift of four-year-olds to reception classes is that these classes are not considered suitable for such young children. Research by Caroline Sharp, senior research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research, has shown, for example, that children who start primary school at a very young age (that is, at four) do less well than older starters. Perhaps that is because they are being catapulted too young into too formal a setting without enough adult attention and with too structured a curriculum.
Whatever the case, the voucher scheme has concentrated minds. Politicians and chief education officers are, for the first time, actually thinking about what constitutes good early education, according to Gillian Pugh. "It is putting quality under the spotlight," she says. "There's a lot positive that's happened but I still don't believe we should continue with vouchers. You could have had a greater expansion by spending the money differently and without this amazing bureaucracy."
But the Government does have something of an ally for its voucher scheme in Sir Christopher Ball, who says he is very interested in the general principle. "It is about empowering the consumer of the service. You get a better quality car if you choose your own"n
Time to apply
Parents with a child who will be four by 31 March should have received an application form for their nursery vouchers last month. Anyone who has not received their form should ring the hotline 0345 543345. When parents receive their form, they should check that the information on it is correct, sign it, and send it off. When the vouchers arrive, parents are advised to take them to the pre-school - either the local primary, a nursery or play group - they want their child to attend. The sooner that they do this, the more sure they can be of getting the place they want.
Ofsted will be inspecting all establishments accepted under the Voucher scheme in their first year of operation. Most nursery schools will record "some weaknesses". But parents should be concerned if a nursery scores "many weaknesses". The reports will be published and available from the school or on the Internet on http://www.open.gov.uk/ ofsted/ofsted.htm
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