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Debate: Free, publicly-funded nursery education

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Should the state provide free nursery education for all children?

Background and context

The provision of free nursery education could be done in a variety of ways. Most obviously, nursery schools could be run and funded directly by the state, as primary and secondary education is in most countries. Alternatively, a less interventionist system could be operated whereby nursery provision remained private but parents were given some sort of subsidy or voucher to cover their costs. Other issues for the proposition to consider in their opening speech are whether nursery education should be compulsory for all children, at what age it should become free, and whether funding would be a universal benefit or would be means-tested.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Free nursery provision ensures a good start in education for all children by providing a more stimulating environment than parents can achieve at home, with music, books, and art and craft activities alongside physical play. An early start can be made on educational basics such as literacy and numeracy, allowing every child a greater chance to achieve their full potential.

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No

Research indicates that starting children too young in formal education is counter-productive and can limit their academic progress in later years, as well as putting them off schooling from an early age. Health and safety rules, and the convenience of the teachers also dictate that children in nursery schools spend little time outside, exploring the physical environment and playing in the open air, thus limiting an important part of early years development.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Government funding of nursery places is an investment in the future with long-term economic and social benefits. Children learn to interact well with others of their own age and with different adults, and become used to a structured environment, helping them fit into school better as they get older. It provides opportunities for all that currently only the better-off can afford, and will thus act as a social leveller.

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No

The plan implies one model of child-rearing is best, even if nursery school is not made compulsory. This undermines parental choice over the upbringing of their children and may conflict with the right to a private life and even religious freedoms if social integration is going to be forced on particular minority groups. Research indicates that children do best if they are brought up by a parent staying at home with them in their early years; the free provision of nursery places would make this less common as mothers would feel that they were not so important to their child’s development, and were being freed to seek work instead.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Free nursery provision would enable many women to return to the workforce, which would be good for them and their children, as even a part-time job for a mother can often be enough to lift a family out of poverty, especially if she is a lone parent.

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No

Nursery schools won’t operate for enough hours, nor every week in the year, to allow women to take full-time jobs. A more general child-care credit, which could be spent on nannies, childminders or nursery school places would do more to bring mothers back into employment, if this is considered desirable in itself (see point 2 above).

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Argument #4

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Yes

It would also be good for the economy as these newly employed women would bring valuable skills back into the workforce, and by expanding the pool of available labour, help to hold down wage inflation. Their taxes, and the savings to the government in lower welfare benefits once these mothers are in jobs, would go a long way to paying for the cost.

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No

The economic benefits are in many ways questionable, especially if women returning to the workforce after childbirth become a low-paid reservoir of labour displacing those already in work. Many highly-skilled mothers already return to work while their children are very young, as they can afford to hire childcare, so it is dubious whether encouraging the remaining, less skilled, mothers back into the workforce early would do much to benefit the economy.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Such a benefit would be a great boon to hard-pressed families who often have to pay more each week in childcare costs than they do for food and clothing combined. If the country really does value children as its future (not least because they will one day pay the taxes to cover today’s expensive pension commitments), and wishes to encourage more people to start families, it is time it removed the financial penalties which prevent them from doing so.

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No

The state already gives considerable help to families with young children, both through the welfare system and through tax credits. If free nursery education were to be a universal benefit it would be hugely expensive. As many parents already choose to pay for nursery education, why should the state waste money giving this benefit to them free? In addition, many companies already run workplace nurseries - why should the government pay them to do what they are doing already?Means-testing the provision also poses problems, as it is demeaning, divisive and complicated, and always catches some in the middle who fail to qualify for the benefit yet are too poor to pay for the service on their own account.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Universal nursery education would allows physical and learning difficulties to be picked up early in life, so that children can receive appropriate treatment. It also makes it easier to pick up signs of problems at home, such as child abuse or neglect.

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No

This scheme implies a massive expansion in nursery provision, which may make it hard to maintain high standards of care, education and safety. When nursery vouchers were introduced in pilot areas in Britain in the mid-1990s, some voluntary pre-schools actually ended up closing, because local primary schools added nursery classes to attract the extra money, and being less burdened by rules about adult/child ratios, could do so more cheaply than the voluntary groups.

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