Counting the cost of nursery school

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The Independent Online
The Government's nursery voucher scheme has been launched with much fanfare and self-congratulations, but parents cannot afford to be complacent and assume that their child will automatically have a nursery school place of their choice. The voucher scheme is to be welcomed, but in many cases parents could find themselves out of pocket.

The voucher scheme begins in Norfolk, and in the London boroughs of Westminster,Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea next April, and is due to be in operation throughout the country in 1977.

Every four-year-old will be eligible for a voucher worth pounds 1,100 for nursery education. Parents in the pilot areas will be sent application forms by Capita, the company administering the scheme; when the scheme is nationwide parents will be contacted initially by their child benefit office. Vouchers will be issued each term, and parents will be able to use them against the cost of nursery education.

Currently the only free pre-school education is that provided by state day nurseries and reception classes in state schools. These places will continue, but demand far exceeds supply. Most parents who want their child to have pre-school education have to go to a private or voluntary institution. So long as the institution is providing education rather than just child minding, it should qualify for the vouchers. Fees can vary enormously, however. If the nursery place costs more than the voucher, then the parents will need to top it up to meet the fees.

At the most expensive end of the scale, private schools with reception classes for the under fives, and private nurseries can charge more than the yearly voucher for one term alone.

At the other end, the local church play group may offer mornings only at around pounds 3 to pounds 4 a session. Part time institutions will be entitled to the full voucher value. Workplace and place nurseries will also be eligible to accept the vouchers - again, as long as they offer education rather than simply a childminding service.

Nursery schools are for education however and cannot be relied upon as total child care for working parents. A lot of pre-school education is part time. Frequently only mornings or afternoons are offered with sessions lasting three hours or less. This would not be adequate even for part time workers.

If you are unable to look after your child outside these hours, you must also consider the cost of child care such as a registered child minder, a nanny or babysitter. As this is non-educational care, the parent must meet the full cost. Child minders are only allowed to look after a certain number of children at a time, and because of this you are likely to have to pay for the child minder even during the hours that your child is at the nursery. This is especially likely if the place is only part time.

The nursery voucher scheme only covers four year olds. Very many nurseries accept children from the age of three, and some even from two. If the nursery you have set your heart on is in strong demand, you may have to secure a place by sending your child to nursery from the age of entry and pay in full, rather than hoping there will be unfilled places for four year olds.

The only other alternatives are creches, or carer and toddler groups, some of which lack the facilities or trained staff to provide adequate stimulation and personal attention for the three year old.

Britain has one of the worst records in Europe for providing child care and education for pre-school children, even though it is now widely acknowledged that the benefits last throughout school life.

Hopefully the voucher scheme will stimulate private enterprise and more nurseries will be created to meet demand. Governments are keen to woo parents' votes, but for the time being, many parents will have to pay for pre-school education, and the total cost to parents cannot be divorced from the need to provide child care outside nursery hours.

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