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The BBC's Sue littlemore
"Only Labour is making this pledge"
 real 56k

Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Concerns over pre-school expansion
primary school nursery class
School nursery classes have expanded
The education secretary has acknowledged the fears of pre-school groups in England that primary schools are "mopping up" youngsters into their own nursery and reception classes.


We need to be much more hands-on, much more careful in the delivery for three year olds

David Blunkett
Speaking at the Pre-school Learning Alliance's annual conference, in London, David Blunkett said Labour had to be "much more careful" about how it delivered its promise on nursery education.

The party is promising free part-time places for all three year olds by 2004 if it stays in power, having met its previous pledge of places for all four year olds.

It has four pledges for the under-fives:

  • 45,000 new day care places in up to 900 "neighbourhood nursery centres" by 2004
  • 100 "early excellence centres" by 2004
  • 500 Sure Start projects supporting families and children in disadvantaged areas
  • 100,000 new "wrap-around" childcare places, available in selected nursery schools and providing all-day education and care.

There were 80,000 more places for three year olds at the start of this year than a year earlier, meaning 58% were now able to attend, Mr Blunkett said.

But the expansion of the sector has seen a growth in the number of nursery schools attached to primary schools.

This in turn hit many groups in the private and voluntary sectors, where the regulations on adult-child ratios are tougher.

'Diversity'

Mr Blunkett told his audience: "There is undoubtedly still a real worry about reception classes, isn't there - about what's happening in terms of mopping up.

"I haven't solved that. I have tried to put in place mechanisms that would open it up, that would allow real diversity.

"But the lesson that I draw from it is that we need to be much more hands-on, much more careful in the delivery for three year olds and its ancillary delivery of childcare, to make sure that you are not excluded, that you are part of it, so that the aspiration becomes the reality."

Mr Blunkett said the growth in the sector "has been also equalled by a real fear of the reduction in the actual number of groups that have been able to operate in this interim period, and I don't duck that either."

The emergency funding he had put in place to sustain pre-schools "needs to be part of the solution for the future".

Funding

And as part of that the prime minister had asked for a streamlining of the way groups applied for funding from a variety of sources - "little pots all over the place".


If only Labour had adopted this policy when the Liberal Democrats first proposed it in 1997, three and four year olds would have been reaping the benefits for many years

Liberal Democrat Phil Willis
"Because at the moment I think it must drive you completely crackers trying to find where to go to," Mr Blunkett said.

He said it would be reasonable to ask why this had not been done in the past four years, but he felt like he had been "at the wheel of an oil tanker" in trying to change things - "and then of course you get moved to another department".

The education secretary is widely expected to move to the Home Office in a post-election reshuffle, if Labour wins the election.

'Middle England'

One of the delegates at the pre-school conference asked Mr Blunkett about funding for "ordinary middle-class areas" such as hers in Gloucestershire.

"I understand that disadvantaged areas need funding, but so does Middle England," said Jane Christie.

"How can New Labour forget Middle England?" Mr Blunkett joked.

He said it was inevitable that areas which had had the least investment in the past would benefit most - but the commitment was for all areas and all children.

Staff attrition

Lesley Hunter said, to applause from those around her, that her region - London - was losing experienced playleaders to become classroom assistants in schools.

Mr Blunkett - who had earlier announced a plan to recruit 20,000 more classroom assistants to help relive teachers' workload - said he had no simple answer.

He said there had to be "a much closer look at how we can help you with an affordable hourly rate," he said.

There had to be a "planned exit" from the sector - as people acquired qualifications and moved on up the career ladder.

"It needs to be done in a way that doesn't denude you from being there in the first place, because if you are not there there's no ladder to climb - we will have kicked it away," he said.

He asked delegates to come up with solutions to squaring this circle.

Lib Dem response

There is nothing - as David Blunkett pointed out - about early years in the Conservatives' election manifesto.

The Liberal Democrats said they had been first to propose universal nursery education.

"If only Labour had adopted this policy when the Liberal Democrats first proposed it in 1997, three and four year olds would have been reaping the benefits for many years," said their education spokesman, Phil Willis.

A Liberal Democrat government would improve the quality of Labour's provision by:

  • funding 1,000 early years specialists
  • giving additional training to nursery teachers
  • increasing funding for outdoor facilities
  • ensuring that the early years curriculum had "sufficient breadth to facilitate intellectual, emotional and social development" with play is a key part of that.

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See also:

28 Apr 01 | Education
Funding mix-up hits pre-schools
04 Jul 00 | Education
Search for 83,000 child carers
06 Jun 00 | Education
Free places for all three year olds
29 Jul 00 | Education
Concern over childcare
11 Jan 01 | Education
'Danger' of early learning pressures
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