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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK
More money to rescue playgroups
playgroup
Private centres have been hit by free school places
Private and voluntary pre-school centres in England are getting another 500,000 from the government to bail them out of their money troubles.

Many such centres have closed in recent years and, according to a survey, a quarter of those which remain feel they are in danger of having to close.

They are being hit by a growth in the number of free places in nursery classes attached to primary schools.

But another survey suggests parents do not feel pressurised into sending their children to school reception classes at too young an age.

The government's announcement of an extra 500,000 to the Pre-School Learning Alliance is on top of the 3,089,000 the alliance gets already to support local groups.

An NOP poll the alliance commissioned of playgroups and pre-schools in England found that 24% believed there was a "strong threat" they would close.

Closures

Since 1997, 2,000 groups have closed and a further 1,500 avoided closure only because of emergency funding from the government, the alliance said.

Its chief executive, Margaret Lochrie, said: "If this continues, there is a real danger that the pre-school movement will disappear entirely within a very few years.

"This would be a great hardship not just for the hundreds of thousands of children who attend pre-schools every day, but for the communities they serve."

The Department for Education and Employment is pledged to providing free pre-school places for all four-year-olds and two thirds of three-year-olds by 2002.

The push for more places has led many primary schools to open nursery classes, offering parents a free place in classes that often become 'feeder' classes to the first formal year of school.

Uneven playing field

But there are different regulations about the staffing levels in schools and in other centres - schools can have more children per adult.

Consequently it is more expensive for private and voluntary groups to function at all, compared with schools. And school nurseries have economies of scale.

And to cap it all, there have been suggestions that some parents want to get a place for their children in popular, over-subscribed schools' nursery or "reception" classes so they can move up into the main school.

A survey carried out for the education department by the National Centre for Social Research, which interviewed 127 parents of summer-born four-year-olds, suggests that most did not feel pressurised in this way, however.

  • 89% agreed that they were happy for their child to start reception class;
  • 80% of the parents felt that they had enough information available to make an informed choice about where to send their child at the time when they entered reception class;
  • 85% of parents did not feel pressurised to take up a place at a reception class.
  • overall almost three quarters of the parents either did not defer entry to reception class or would not have considered deferring if they were given the option.

    But the developments have proved disastrous for the private and voluntary sector. The government provided half a million pounds in emergency funding last year and set up an inquiry into what was happening.

    In the meantime it restricted the number of four-year-olds that could be taught by a single teacher in school reception classes, and, as an experiment, loosened the rules for private and voluntary nurseries.

    The inquiry reported last October. It made a string of recommendations to stop schools "poaching" children from the private and voluntary sectors.

    The House of Commons education select committee is conducting its own inquiry into early years provision.

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    See also:

    15 Oct 99 | Education
    97m for early years places
    17 Mar 99 | Education
    Playgroup closures probe
    01 Oct 99 | Education
    Playgroup places continue to fall
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