Nursery row headmistress steps down

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Paddy Holmes, the private school headmistress who last week said that parents were damaging their children by sending them to nursery school at the age of two, yesterday resigned as chairman of an independent schools' association.

Mrs Holmes, the head of Ditcham Park School, Petersfield, Hampshire, felt she had to leave after her controversial remarks were construed as the association's policy.

The number of two-year-olds in private nursery schools is rising rapidly and her colleagues were quick to emphasise that two-year-olds in private nurseries are well-cared for.

Mrs Holmes, whose school takes pupils from the age of four, said at a press conference to publicise the latest census of private school numbers that young children were being treated like animals and packed off to school in nappies by parents who wanted to pursue their careers. Her remarks were splashed across the news pages and leader columns of national newspapers.

The Independent Schools Association, which she chaired, announced that she had resigned. Brian Maybee, head of the Mount School, Bromsgrove, and joint vice-chairman, said: "Once her recent personal remarks on the education of very young children, which have been widely publicised, became construed by a number of people, both in and out of the association, as association policy, she had no other option. She has acted honourably and promptly and, as far as I am concerned, my high regard for her has not been at all diminished."

The letter points out that the association has no formal policy on the education of very young children. Each member school formulates its own policy, taking account of Government rules on under-fives' education.

Rosemary Murphy, chair of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, disputes Mrs Holmes' remarks in an article to be published tomorrow in the magazine Nursery World. She says: "Parents are not dumping children in nurseries but are using them because they are the best place for a child and ten hours happens to be the length of the working day."

The number of two-year-olds in independent nurseries went up by 27 per cent last year to 4,584, the biggest increase for any group. Mrs Holmes said that research over many years showed that the younger children were taken away from their mother or stand-in mother for many hours a day, the more likely they were to have problems later. She accepted, however, that a well-organised nursery school might be the best option if children had to be parted from their parents.