Vouchers scheme forces schools to start children at four

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The Independent Online
The age for starting school will effectively be reduced from five to four under plans being considered by many local authorities in response to the Government's nursery voucher scheme.

Experts in early years education are alarmed by the proposals because they fear thousands of children who are just four will be put into reception classes which are not equipped to cope with such young children.

From April next year, all parents of four-year-olds will receive pounds 1,100 in nursery vouchers, to be spent at state or private schools or at playgroups.

Local authorities throughout the country are reviewing their admissions policies to ensure that they receive the maximum share of voucher income. At present, the statutory starting age for school is five, though many authorities admit some pupils before their fifth birthday.

Gillian Pugh, of the National Children's Bureau, said that while many local authorities were considering proposals to admit more four-year-olds, few were looking at ways of changing the staffing and curriculum of reception classes.

"Everywhere else in Europe children start school at six. Now we are going to start them at four. It isn't the right way to raise standards. You don't tune four-year-olds into learning by treating them like five-year- olds," she said, arguing that there was a difference between nursery education and starting school, which many MPs had failed to grasp.

Nursery classes, for instance, require a ratio of one teacher to thirteen children, but there is no limit on reception class numbers. Experts also point out that it is counter-productive to introduce children to formal lessons too soon.

Local authorities are considering a variety of schemes for admitting children earlier than they do at present. Hereford and Worcester, which admits children in the term before they are five, is consulting schools about changing its policy. A spokesman said the general feeling was that children born in the summer should start when they were just four, two terms earlier than at present, and those born in the spring would start at September rather than Christmas, one term earlier than at present.

Bedfordshire will consult next term on ways of increasing the proportion of four-year-olds, though final decisions will be left to individual schools. Keith Fossey, the council's education manager, said: "We have to be sure we get back the voucher money for the four-year-olds already in school and to see if we can get our hands on some of the new money. We have a lot of independent nurseries and we may lose children to them."

He said the council aimed to establish standards to ensure that proper provision was made for four-year-olds, but it would take time to implement them.

Oxfordshire is also consulting about the possibility of admitting a higher proportion of four-year-olds to school, but it is anxious not to do so at the expense of nursery education.

A spokesman said: "We want to frame the policy in such a way that we say to parents that where nursery education is available we recommend that they put their children into nursery." Just over a quarter of the county's three- and four-year-olds are in nursery education.

Hampshire, which already admits children to school on a part-time basis when they are four is exploring the idea of four-year-olds starting full-time school earlier.

Mrs Pugh said: "What really worries me is that, even if vouchers are overturned by a Labour government, the rot has set in. Once you have taken children in early, you are going to carry on doing so."

t National tests for five-year-olds are likely to be introduced in primary schools next year, after government consultation with parents, governors and local authority leaders, it was confirmed yesterday.