Leading Article: Basics begin in the nursery

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The Independent Online
BACK to basics. Not to the vague and worthy generalities of ministerial speeches calling for 'self-discipline' and 'responsibility', but to the specifics of how our children are educated. All the arguments about lone parents, rising crime and juvenile delinquency come back to the basics of schooling and parenting. The Government can do almost nothing about the latter; it can do almost everything about the former.

Three years ago, Sir Claus Moser, then president of the British Association, said that Britain was 'in danger of becoming the worst educated of the advanced nations', offering too many children a schooling that was 'not worthy of a civilised society'. He called for a Royal Commission on education; ministers laughed off the idea. So Sir Claus - embracing Tory ideals of self-help and self-reliance - found the money to set up his own with 15 members of the 'great and good'. Tomorrow, the commission publishes its report.

The commission - the report has been widely leaked - reminds us of things we had almost forgotten. Many of our schools are slums, with the backlog of repairs now close to pounds 4bn. They struggle to buy books and equipment. Some children are still taught in classes of 35 or even 40. We have less publicly funded nursery education for the under-fives than almost any other country in Europe. Ministers insist that these things do not matter, ensuring meanwhile that their own children get the earliest possible start in private nurseries, and finding, from their supposedly inadequate remuneration, sufficient to pay high fees at schools that boast of small classes, lavish laboratories and playing fields and extensive libraries.

The commission's proposal that children should start school at three is already being treated by ministers as if it were on a par with a proposal to put a Briton on Venus. Yet these same ministers profess their determination, in John Major's words on Friday, 'to get down to tackling the roots of crime'. They should examine American research that has followed a group of black children from deprived homes since the 1960s. It shows convincingly that boys who enjoy full-time, high-quality nursery education are less likely to get into trouble with the law when they reach their teens. The girls are less likely to get pregnant. The researchers estimated that for every dollar invested in the children's pre- schooling, the taxpayer had saved seven dollars in reduced costs of crime, remedial education and other social problems.

These results would be no surprise to Baroness Thatcher, who was so impressed by the evidence on nursery education when she was Education Secretary 20 years ago that she promised it would eventually be available to any child whose parents wanted it. The promise was forgotten. The excuse was that the economy was never healthy enough, so it would be ruinously expensive. Yet a series of reports from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research have shown that the mass of British school leavers achieve a lower level of basic numeracy and literacy skills than our main industrial competitors. Further, the institute has shown these shortcomings are directly connected to the failure to produce goods and services that will compete in world markets on high quality rather than low price. The Government argues that it is tackling these problems by, for example, introducing the national curriculum. But it is no use trying to teach science and technology to seven-year-olds who cannot read or even concentrate. Any primary school teacher will tell you that, by the time they reach the classroom, many children are already lost causes.

Ministers will say that, particularly when there is a high budget deficit, the money cannot be found. Sir Claus's answer - and our answer - is that the money must be found. By what logic has the Government concluded that this offshore island should spend more than its European Union partners on defence, less on education? Sir Claus costs his nursery education proposals at pounds 860m a year, a sum that could be released (with plenty to spare) if Britain were to bring the proportion of national income spent on defence down to the EU average. All his proposals - including those for repairing school buildings - could be financed (again with plenty to spare) through the 1p addition to income tax proposed by the Liberal Democrats, to considerable public acclaim, at the last general election.

Recognition of the importance of an early start to education goes back at least to the Plowden Report - a government committee - 30 years ago. That generation missed out. So did the next, and the next. Mr Major should indeed get back to basics and recognise that, if our economic and social decline is ever to be arrested, the children now being born must not miss out.