Even a child could do it better

Britain has uniquely failed to provide enough nurseries. Fran Abrams assesses latest efforts to solve the problem
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Belgians do it. The French doit.Eveneducated Swedes do it. But try as they might, the British just cannot organise a decent nursery- education system.

Yet again, our attempts to educate our under-fives properly have landed us in the soup. Ministers were hoping their nursery voucher scheme, due to go national in April 1997, would turn out to be a vote-winner, but the House of Lords seemed to have other ideas, and voted to delay implementation until the full results of a pilot scheme in four areas are known - in effect until after the general election.

While other European nations provide nursery places for almost all their three- and four-year-olds, we still have room for only two thirds of ours. And many of those are in overcrowded primary-school reception classes, playgroups or day nurseries, which may not offer much in the way of education.

And this parlous state of affairs has not come about for lack of trying, either. Successive governments have talked about a universal nursery education since Margaret Thatcher first promised it back in the early Seventies, when she was education secretary.

Just one thing is certain: parents want this to happen. In France, where there are places available for all three-year-olds, 98 per cent of parents take them up. Even parents in the four "phase one" voucher areas have welcomed the initiative, which gives them pounds 1,100 to spend in a state or private school, or in a playgroup. A survey published this month by the pre-school learning alliance showed that 80 per cent of playgroups felt parents were happy with the vouchers.

Parents who previously had to pay for nursery places benefit most. Among them is Carmel Carolan, a single mother whose son, Dean, has been going to the Imps playgroup in Westminster for almost two years.

Until this April, Mrs Carolan had to pay pounds 5.50 per week out of her benefit for Dean, but now his place is free. With a rise in fees coming, she doubts that she would have been able to continue taking him each afternoon without a voucher. There are many other single mothers at the group who are similarly pleased, she says.

"Under the voucher scheme they have to start teaching them things. It's definitely made a difference - Dean's learning so much more. He's learnt how to spell his name and he's memorised lots of telephone numbers. Every time I come out of the bathroom he's on the phone talking to his grandfather," she said.

But the delight of Mrs Carolan and her fellow parents should not lead ministers to indulge in any premature triumphalism. If, as Gillian Shephard hinted yesterday, the Government overturns the Lords' decision and presses on, the national launch next April could be a ghastly mess.

The fact that the pilot scheme in Westminster, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea and Norfolk has been a moderate success is not in the least bit surprising. Parents are happy with the programme because ministers have made concessions to ensure nothing goes wrong. Mrs Carolan's voucher only pays for the full cost of Dean's place because the Government gave in to protests and abandoned plans to give playgroups only half the pounds 1,100 value for each child.

There have been many other instances of almost staggering flexibility. Not enough nursery places for all Norfolk's four-year-olds? Hey presto, Gillian Shephard promises 16 new local-authority nursery units. Grumbles from Wandsworth about having to educate voucher-less four-year-olds from neighbouring boroughs? Lo and behold, almost pounds 500,000 extra cash is provided, allegedly to compensate the council. Demands from all four authorities to redeem the vouchers through their local management of schools funding, giving them effective control of the scheme? No problem.

Next year things will be different. With every authority in the country involved, there will not be funds for hand-outs all round.The schools minister, Robin Squire, has admitted that there may not be enough places to go round, either. Without incentives for private firms to build new nurseries, the net result will be that some four-year-olds will be crammed into primary-school reception classes, while others sit at home.

Even worse, there could be horror stories about dangerous, badly run private nurseries operating on vouchers. With inspectors unable to visit all 16,000 providers for up to a year, cowboy operators could cause panic.

What most parents are looking for is a safe, stimulating nursery, which is open at hours that enable them to go to work. But it is possible that some private nurseries may not be safe. An overcrowded reception class with 35 children is not likely to be stimulating enough. And a voucher that pays for five half-days each week may only serve to complicate rather than ease child-care arrangements.

If things do go wrong, they could do so in spectacular fashion. Imagine the horror in Downing Street if, just weeks before a general election, it becomes clear that thousands of parents have vouchers but no nursery places.

Nursery education may not prove much of a winner for Labour, either. The opposition has committed itself to high-quality nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds, but it has not committed itself to the huge injection of public funds that may be needed. Instead, it has relied on the hope that the public-private partnerships can provide the necessary capital investment.

The problem with nursery education in the UK is that we put it in the same category as apple pie. It is a Good Thing, but it has never been at the top of our list. In the immortal words of the song, what we should be saying is: "Let's do it."