John Major's conversion to the idea came last November when the National Commission on Education argued for nursery education for all. It said research showed that nursery children from lower- income families did better at school and, as adults, were less likely to commit crimes or be unemployed.
On 23 December, the Prime Minister said in an interview that it was his ambition 'over time, to move to universal nursery education'. Mr Major believes nursery education will be a vote-winner at the next election: parental demand for nursery education has grown as more women have returned to work.
Despite the clear benefits of nursery education to children in low-income families, much nursery education is for middle-class children, though there are big variations in the proportion of children who benefit in different local authorities. Gloucestershire has no children in nursery education, while in South Tyneside the figure is more than 60 per cent. Playgroups provide alternatives, but the commission said that this was of a 'highly variable' quality.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of four-year-olds have been admitted to ordinary classes by heads who are anxious to build up their numbers, and local politicians wanting to satisfy parental demand.
Experts say that, while some four-year-olds are capable of coping with formalities such as assemblies, many are not. In 1986, the parliamentary Select Committee on Education said schools should admit children to ordinary classes only if appropriate staffing and equipment were available for them.
The British Association for Early Childhood Education reported recently that some children were 'being removed from high-quality nursery provision at the end of only one or two terms to enter classes with a pupil/teacher ratio of 1:25 or more'.
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