Broad approval is tempered by scepticism

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Most of the parents collecting children from the Mary Seacole nursery in north London yesterday approved of the Government's scheme to hand out vouchers worth pounds 1,100, but saw it as primarily benefiting middle- class families.

The nursery is attached to the local health authority and employees can expect reduced rates. But for those private users who pay the full amount, the weekly fee for a child over three is pounds 95 - over pounds 4,500 a year - more than four times the value of the Government's voucher.

The nursery, which has a maximum intake of 40, takes children from six months old but those aged between three and five can go into the "pre- school" class where they are taught by a Montessori-trained teacher who introduces them to maths, science, reading and writing.

"A child of four will get all his or her social, intellectual and physical development from being in a nursery," said nursery manager Anavia Ferdinand. "Parents can rest easier knowing their children are being stimulated throughout the course of the day. For children whose parents don't have the financial means to send them to nursery, it does mean they're not going to have the same skills ...

"Anything the Government does to give parents help with child care is going to be a benefit. Finally the Government is recognising parents do need help in returning to work."

Vince Kirwan, a maintenance plumber who was picking up his three-year- old son Danny, thought it was an excellent idea. "Danny started coming here in January and I think he's really improved. Before he was a bit slow, now he notices different things and is always asking me questions. Having the vouchers will encourage parents and any amount of money helps."

Mary Zedan, whose four-year-old son Hashem is in the pre-school class was similarly approving: "This will encourage more nurseries to be set up. I wasn't able to get Hashem into our local authority nursery because there was a two-year waiting list and I had to bring him here and pay."

Not all agreed. Oenone Miles, a clinical psychologist whose nine-month- old baby Leo attends the centre, said: "The Government should be providing adequate pre-school facilities across the board.

"There's very patchy provision and, as far as I can work out, this new scheme does not provide money to set up new nurseries. They are depending on market forces to make up the nursery shortfall."

She was sceptical about the value of the vouchers: "It doesn't sound a lot of money to me, and the idea of topping up will exclude those who can't afford it anyway. It will result in a two-tier system, with the poor getting poor-quality nurseries."

Martina Evans, mother of Liadian, aged four, urged caution: "It could be unfair if it's going to be right across the board because people who can already afford it are going to get more money. It should be based on your earnings."

She did not think the system would result in a broader spectrum of children attending: "I think it will remain for the middle classes. With middle- class parents you're afraid that your children might be losing out if you don't send them there."

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