Leading Article: Nurseries: we can afford them

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The Independent Online
THERE IS no quicker or easier way to raise educational standards than by giving children access to nursery schools. Catching them young provides a unique opportunity to transcend social disadvantage and gives children a secure foundation for learning. The dividends are not just academic - research shows that teenagers with a nursery education are less likely to get into trouble with the law, and there is a smaller chance of girls becoming pregnant.

Universal nursery education is a policy that John Major could be expected to support as central to his programme of getting Britain 'back to basics'. At a stroke, such an initiative would help to confront a host of problems: delinquency, the high incidence of teenage motherhood, low educational achievement and the disadvantages experienced by the children of lone parents.

Yesterday, one of the most thorough reviews in recent times of British education showed Mr Major how he can ensure nursery education for all, even in straitened times. The report, by the independent National Commission on Education, is realistic about money. The price, it says, of teaching children from three years of age could come from savings in state funding of higher education. Undergraduates and post-graduates, who receive a disproportionate share of state resources, would have to pay more for their education. Universities would enjoy extra cash from this private source while state cash would be freed for nurseries.

This dramatic change would require immense political will. Many middle-class parents - some of them Conservative voters - would balk at cuts in state subsidies for higher education. They might not appreciate the benefits of universal nursery education, which many can afford privately. Fears that poorer students would be deterred from going to university would have to be addressed. Payments would have to be linked to incomes earned after graduation.

But the Government should be bold. In the National Health Service it is already transferring resources from hospitals to primary care despite opposition from entrenched interests. Similar radicalism is needed in education. One child in seven still leaves primary school illiterate and innumerate. This means that subsequent teaching is a waste of money and the child's time, because learning is ill-founded. Reports constantly say British education is failing the majority.

The arguments in favour of starting school at three convinced Margaret Thatcher two decades ago that services should be expanded. Yet nursery education in Britain remains the privilege of a minority. Among our economic competitors in Europe, it is available to most children.

In Britain, the cry - echoed again recently by John Patten, the Education Secretary - has always been that we cannot afford universal nursery schooling. Yesterday's report shows that this is not true. Britain can afford it, provided savings are made elsewhere. Expansion in provision is a question of priorities. As the benefits of nursery education become clearer, the need for a change of policy grows. If Britain is to have a well-educated workforce in the next century, it must begin educating its under-fives.