A giant leap for 4-year-olds?

Argument continues over whether nursery vouchers are a lifesaver for hard-up parents and vital boost to their children, or just an unnecessary hand-out
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Last week, the Commons overturned a House of Lords amendment that would have delayed the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme. Parents of all four-year-olds are due to receive vouchers next April.

Yet the arguments over vouchers go on. Critics claim that the scheme will give middle-class parents "a bonanza".

They say many of those who are already paying for nursery school or playgroup will receive a government handout of pounds 1,100 a year - the value of the voucher.

Yet even some of those who are critical of the voucher scheme in general point out that others besides the nursery-going classes of Chelsea and Hampstead will benefit from the scheme.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance, for instance, doubts whether vouchers will achieve the Government's aim of increasing the number of nursery or playgroup places for the under-fives.

Already, it says, competition for voucher money is producing some undesirable results: one of the most likely outcomes seems to be that school will change their admission policies to admit more four-year-olds, threatening the existence of some playgroups.

But the alliance's Margaret Lochrie says the vouchers offer real and immediate benefits to some playgroup parents.

"At least a quarter of children in our groups are in severe financial hardship. Only a tiny minority get funding from local authorities. Underneath the politics of left and right these are children who in any circumstances require help from the state."