Audit Commission blames lack of nurseries plan for drop in playgroup places

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The Independent Online
Councils have a long way to go to meet the Government's timetable for scrapping nursery vouchers, say public spending watchdogs. Lucy Ward explains why, even though education authorities have been told to expand nursery education, playgroup places are being closed.

Local education authorities are often ignoring the role of playgroups or private nurseries as they draw up plans for more nursery places, the Audit Commission said yesterday. Its study found that only half of LEAs had formal systems for consulting private and voluntary nurseries, despite being required to work together with other providers to fulfil government promises on expanding pre-school education.

In some cases, moves by LEAs to open new nursery classes had led existing playgroup places to close because of over- provision, auditors found. Elsewhere, failure by LEAs to plan adequately meant vacant nursery places - in two-thirds of schools in one authority - were not being removed. Where there were enough places, they were sometimes unevenly spread.

Auditors carried out their review last month as LEAs worked to fulfil targets on nursery places. Shortly after gaining office last May, the Government acted on its manifesto pledge to scrap the nursery voucher scheme introduced by the Conservatives. Instead, LEAs were required to establish partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors and produce early-years development plans outlining how they would guarantee at least a part-time nursery place for every four-year-old by next September.

According to the commission's review, many authorities "lacked a clear strategy" on which to base their plans. Often, they had too little information on existing provision and levels of need to allow them to plan a strategy properly. There were also variations between authorities in the level of nursery provision for children with special needs.

The controller of the Audit Commission, Andrew Foster, said that although many LEAs had made progress, "much remains to be done if all authorities are to be able to meet the objectives set out by the Government and to ensure all children have access to a quality service."

Playgroup leaders said the report confirmed their warnings that playgroups were suffering as LEAs were left in charge. Margaret Lochrie, leader of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said: "The findings are spot on. This term there have been virtually no four-year-olds in voluntary sector provision - most of them have been in school reception classes."