Reception classes planned for toddlers

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The overwhelming majority of four-year-olds will be put into reception classes this autumn, despite criticism from a Commons select committee that the experience for many may be harmful.

Local-authority plans to replace the previous government's nursery voucher scheme reveal that most intend to admit between 90 and 100 per cent of four-year-olds to state school reception classes, according to the Pre- School Learning Alliance.

Just three months ago, the Commons Education Select Committee argued in a report that one of the most damaging results of the voucher scheme was the admission of more young four-year-olds to school. Experts say that many reception classes are not equipped to cope with such young children and may put them off school for life.

But the alliance said yesterday that it has seen around 30 plans for nursery education submitted by authorities for the next two terms and half envisage that all four-year-olds will be in school. The Government's decision to abolish vouchers, worth pounds 1,100 a year for each four-year-old, takes effect from September. The plans - more than 60 in total - will pose problems for ministers who are committed to a partnership between local authorities, private schools and voluntary pre-schools to run services for the under-fives.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has to decide which he will accept. The plans are interim and will apply for the next two terms.

Before next April authorities must set up early-years forums, including representatives of the private and voluntary sectors, which will produce further plans to show how they will provide education for all four- and eventually all three-year-olds.

Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said: "The Select Committee was quite clear that they were not happy about so many children getting nursery education in reception classes.

"Some reception classes will be quite good but some will be not so good. In North Tyneside, where these classes have classroom assistants, is very different from the shire counties, where four-year-olds may be in classes of 35 or 40.

"I am sure that ministers are sincere about wanting partnerships but the fact is that voluntary provision has been eroded by the changes made by authorities in school-admission arrangements."

She accepted that authorities had had only six weeks to draw up their plans and could make only limited changes to existing arrangements.

Draft government guidelines to be published tomorrow will emphasise that local authorities should not expand their reception classes by taking in four-year-olds. Guidelines will also make clear that plans will need to bring together private, voluntary and state provision in order to qualify for early-years funding. David Whitbread, head of education at the Local Government Association, said: "We would accept that in many areas there is an important role for playgroups but at the end of the day you have to provide what best meets the needs of parents and children. It isn't wrong per se for four-year-olds to be in reception classes provided that they are properly staffed and equipped."