Exclusive: Major drops nursery places pledge: Government decides on money-saving option of guaranteed schooling for all four-year-olds

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR is preparing to offer all parents the chance of sending their children to school at the age of four rather than five, after abandoning his proposal for universal nursery education. The replacement of promised nursery education - tailored to the needs of the under-fives - by an earlier start to formal schooling, has been forced on the Government by the cost: pounds 1bn.

The Prime Minister had made his pledge in a pre-Christmas interview a month after an independently funded inquiry had recommended that nursery education be available to 95 per cent of four-year-olds and 85 per cent of three-year-olds. The National Commission on Education, chaired by Sir Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, cited research showing that nursery education improved performance and behaviour in later years. However John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, said the commission's proposals were too expensive.

Although Downing Street sees the extra year of primary school as a step forward, early education experts say that, for many children, it will not replace the benefits of nursery education in preparing them for school. It will also take Britain even farther out of line with most of the rest of Europe, where formal school does not start until six.

Government guidelines ensure that nursery classes are better staffed and have more space than ordinary classes, with no more than 13 children to one adult. Children spend time playing with sand and water because experts believe that teaching formal skills such as reading and writing too early can put them off learning for good.

However, government figures show nursery education for all three- and four-year- olds would cost nearly pounds 1bn. Only about a quarter of the age group gets nursery education. School places would be much cheaper. More than 80 per cent of the 650,000 four- year-olds are in ordinary classes or nursery classes.

The Government will propose legislation forcing all local authorities to provide school places for four-year-olds if the parents want it. At present authorities are only obliged to offer places from five, the compulsory school starting age. That age will stay the same and no parent will be compelled to send a four-year-old to school.

The proportion of four-year-olds in school varies between local authorities, as does the education they receive. Some councils spend money to ensure that schooling in ordinary classes is comparable to nursery education, but many do not.

School inspectors complained in a report last year that the staffing in primary school reception classes containing four-year-olds varied from one adult to six children to one to 35 and that there was rarely proper provision for outdoor play or for developing four-year-olds' physical skills, such as holding a pencil.

Margaret Lally, of the National Campaign for Nursery Education, said yesterday: 'This will backfire on the Government when parents realise that this is not nursery education. Some parents of four- year-olds starting formal school report bed- wetting and considerable anxiety.'

It is not clear how much extra money the Government will release to local authorities for their new responsibilities. The Prime Minister has said that he would prefer to put money into nursery rather than mainstream education. One possibility would be to increase staffing in reception classes and let class sizes for older children rise.

David Whitbread, education under-secretary of the Association of County Councils, said it would cost nearly as much to upgrade ordinary classes for four-year-olds as it would to provide universal nursery education. 'My guess is that at least half of four-year-olds are not in classes staffed as Her Majesty's Inspectors would wish. Local authorities have seen an early start to formal schooling as cheaper than providing brand new nursery classes.'

Mr Major's nursery initiative has been masterminded by Sarah Hogg and Nick True of the Downing Street Policy Unit, with Mr Patten and the Department for Education as junior partners.

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