Education vouchers scheme is forcing nurseries to shut down

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The Independent Online
Playgroups are being forced to close by the Government's nursery voucher scheme as schools rush to admit children who are only just four.

Officials from Norfolk, one of the four councils in the pilot scheme, will next month tell the Commons Select Committee on Education about its concern that some four-year-olds are being sent to schools which are not equipped to cope with them.

As Conservative-controlled Wandsworth and Westminster yesterday presented evidence to the committee of their reservations about the scheme, Michael Edwards, Norfolk's chief education officer, said the number of children attending playgroups had dropped sharply this term and six had gone out of business.

From next April parents of all four-year-olds will be given vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to spend in private, voluntary or local authority nurseries or schools.

Mr Edwards said the mechanics of the scheme were "not unworkable" but he was worried because a growing number of young four-year-olds were being admitted to small rural schools and put in classes with children sometimes several years older. He added:"Heads of schools have seen this is a competitive exercise because of the money involved. Where there are only two or three classes in a school, there are more four-year-olds in mixed-age classes and that is worrying from an educational point of view. We have tried to ensure that there is appropriate teaching but it is very difficult for teachers in small schools to cope with these children."

Playgroups - or pre-schools - say 39 schools have changed their admissions policy to admit children immediately after their fourth birthday. They fear that three-year-olds, who are not eligible for vouchers, will be unable to find pre-school places as playgroups are forced to close.

Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said their survey showed that, in addition to the recent closures, a number of playgroups were struggling to survive.

Meanwhile, four-year-olds were being admitted to reception classes where the staffing and equipment were sometimes not appropriate. Nursery classes must have a higher pupil-teacher ratio than school reception classes.

Mrs Lochrie said:"There is rampant competition from schools. Most four- year-olds are going to end up in reception classes and that is not nursery education."

Robin Squire, the schools minister, said: "There is no financial need for state schools to expand the places they offer to four-year-olds unless they want to. Where they do decide to expand state schools, like those in the private and voluntary sector will want to consider carefully the quality of what they offer."

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