The pre-school sector includes a patchwork quilt of places provided by state, voluntary and private nurseries, childminders and playgroups - available to children between the ages of two and five. At the end of 2000 there were 937,000 pre-school places available - 264,000 in day nurseries, 353,000 in playgroups and other settings and 320,000 with childminders. The government has promised to improve the quality of education available for this age group and to increase the quantity of available places. All four year olds are now promised a part-time place of five morning or afternoon sessions per week, and the government has set a target of providing a place for two thirds of three year olds by 2002. Downside
The push to make more pre-school places available has prompted 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. While this has benefited the budgets of primary schools, there have been claims that this has forced thousands of playgroups to close. Between 2000 and 2001 provisional official statistics show there were 300 more day nurseries - a rise of 3%. These accounted for 20,900 more places (8% more). Playgroups declined by the same number, 300 or 2% of the total - a loss of 22,900 places (6%). And there were 3,300 (4%) fewer childminders, who had provided places for 15,800 children (a 5% fall). Five hundred more out-of-school clubs (11%) are reported.
Overall, more places are being created than are lost.
Early learning goals
The government's efforts to raise levels of education in the pre-school sector have met with a mixed reception. The publication of the level of skills that should be achieved brought criticisms that this was putting unnecessary pressure on the very young. It contributed to a debate over whether children benefited from an early start to learning or whether there were greater advantages to not beginning formal lessons until children were older, as happens in some other countries. The move to upgrade educational standards is part of the trend towards greater regulation in the pre-school sector. There have also been calls for improved training for those working with pre-school children, tighter checks on the suitability of staff and Ofsted inspections of playgroups. But this will still have to contend with the great diversity of pre-school provision and many informal arrangements based around the needs of working parents as much as the educational needs of children.
Primary education in England begins at age five. Local education authorities must provide all children with a school place no later than the start of the term after their fifth birthday. The precise age at which schools take children varies from one area to another, but it is common for children to go to school at the start of the term in which they will become five. A growing trend is for schools to admit new pupils at just one point in the year, which often sees them take children who will be five within the coming school year - September to August; under this system, summer-born children start school in the autumn, not long after their fourth birthdays. Structure
Primary schools consist mainly of infant schools for children aged five to seven, junior schools for those aged seven to 11, and combined junior and infant schools for both age groups. First schools in some parts of England cater for ages five to 10 as the first stage of a three-tier system: First, middle and secondary. Middle schools cover different age ranges between eight and 14 and usually lead on to comprehensive upper schools. Class sizes
The government says research evidence suggests that smaller infant classes enable teachers to spend more time identifying each child's individual needs and difficulties, and offering the help they need to master the basics. |Average...