Leading Article: Out of the sandpit, into the school

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR should think again before dropping proposals to give every three- and four-year- old a nursery place. He knows the plans make sense: nursery education has been shown to reduce both delinquency in later life and the incidence of teenage motherhood. It gives children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, a better chance of success in their school lives. Lone parents can return to work more quickly and earn more for their families.

Universal nursery education is an ideal way for the Prime Minister to pursue his goal of 'back to basics'. Middle-class parents - not to mention government ministers - recognise the importance of good teaching in the early years, and so pay privately for kindergartens. Before Christmas, Mr Major made clear his support for bringing such education within the reach of more people.

Yet, as reported today, he seems to have changed his mind. Instead of early days in sandpits, playing and exploring in the freedom of nursery schools, all Mr Major seems ready to offer is earlier entry to the primary system. Parents would be entitled to pack off their children at four, rather than five, years of age.

This decision might make for good headlines, but it is not educationally sound. Placing children too early in crowded, formal classrooms with just one teacher can be damaging and, in the long term, may actually slow their learning. It is too stressful for some children. Other European countries acknowledge this danger by starting children in school at six, but providing early nursery education.

Mr Major seems to have ignored his own best instincts and overwhelming advice from educationists by choosing a second-rate option. The reason is money. Nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds would cost about pounds 1bn. Cutting the school entry age to four is cheaper: most of the age group are already at school or in nurseries.

But funding for Mr Major's original, more ambitious proposals could be found. He could shift cash from higher education. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister seems to have lost the courage of his earlier convictions. Such a diversion would effectively take state subsidies from the middle classes (who benefit most from university funding) and channel them to the children of poorer parents, who currently lack access to nurseries. That might not go down well with Tory voters.