From 1 April this year, parents of all four-year-olds are entitled to a pounds 1,100 nursery voucher to spend in a state, private or voluntary nursery. The aim of the pounds 750m scheme is to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge that every four-year-old whose parents want it should be entitled to nursery education. Eventually, ministers say, three-year-olds will also be included.
Its other aims are to give parents more choice for their nursery-age children, to ensure that early-years education is of good quality and to safeguard the private and voluntary sectors.
Labour would scrap the scheme and replace it with nursery education for four- and later three-year-olds in new "one-stop" centres which would offer both day care and nursery education. The latter would be financed from both private and public funds.
Last November, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, said that a pilot scheme run in four local authorities, Kensington and Chelsea, Norfolk, Wandsworth, and Westminster, had been a success.
Her department's research, she said, showed that more than 90 per cent of parents had applied for vouchers. The scheme had generated an extra pounds 1.6m into private nurseries and pounds 2.9m in local authority nursery classes.
There were, she said, 800 new local authority places and 285 private and voluntary places in Norfolk. There were plans for 1,000 new places in Westminster over the next three years. She added that the scheme was cheap and easy to use.
However, an independent evaluation carried out by the National Children's Bureau reached different conclusions. It accepted that Norfolk, for instance, had been able to borrow pounds 1m against voucher income to open new nursery classes. But it pointed out that six playgroups in the county had closed, reducing places for both three- and four-year-olds. (That figure has now risen to 11.)
There is no evidence, according to the bureau, that the scheme will create new places.
A report from Coopers and Lybrand, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, said that those local authorities with a high number of places "will have to do extremely well in attracting four-year-old pupils" to maintain their budgets at the same level.
One of the main results of the voucher system has been that schools have admitted a growing number of younger four-year-olds as local authorities change their admissions policies to grab the voucher money. Early-years experts say reception classes may not be staffed and equipped to deal with the youngest four-year-olds.
Even the Conservative-dominated Commons select committee on education has decided that evidence that the scheme had expanded provision for four- year-olds is "inconclusive".
The committee also noted that the closure of playgroups and the growing number of four-year-olds in schools was reducing rather than increasing parental choice.
Mrs Shephard's argument that the scheme is cheap and unbureaucratic is challenged by an NUT survey showing that authorities have been forced to spend pounds 3m on voucher administration. The Government says the spending is unnecessary.
One of the most beneficial effects of the introduction of vouchers has been that private and voluntary nurseries have been inspected for the first time. Only just over half reached the standard expected by the department.
It is, of course, early days. No proper evaluation of the national voucher scheme will be possible for several months. Meanwhile, local authorities are working hard to improve the quality of life in reception classes for four-year-olds. The most recent survey by The Times Educational Supplement suggests that there has been a modest increase in places in one in six local authorities. But, if the scheme survives, the results are likely to be very different from those originally envisaged by the Governmentn
AGAINST: Karen Walker
Market forces often have the effect of bringing services down to the lowest common denominator. In the case of nursery education vouchers, local authorities are hoovering up four-year-olds into reception classes of one adult to 37 pupils.
This is pretty low. How can it be seen to offer "equal opportunities" to children, parents or early years providers?
The training undertaken by a teacher for primary school does not include child development; it is is a generalised qualification. Surely our children deserve better?
They could go to a private day nursery, where they will have a ratio of one adult to eight children. Nurseries are required by The Children Act to employ a minimum of 50 per cent of staff qualified as early years specialists.
The other possibility for our four-year-olds is a playgroup, where the sessions, as at school, last for two-and-a-half hours - not much use to a working parent. Vouchers were designed to pay for a daily two-and-a- half-hour session, five days a week, but many parents would like to use them only on the days they work.
The National Private Day Nurseries Association has also found that many parents are beingcoerced by headteachers into using all their vouchers with the local school - and are not guaranteed a place there when their child reaches compulsory school age.
Working parents who use a private day nursery are being forced to move their children early, and hope that nurseries will collect them after the voucher session and bring them back to the private nursery. For many nurseries this is simply not feasible, and is it fair on any four-year- old to expect him or her to attend two different locations in one day, with the need to form relationships with two sets of adults?
The Government had not considered the difficulties of forcing a blanket scheme over such diverse early years provision when it introduced the voucher scheme. As reported by the National Private Day Nurseries Association to the Commons select committee, vouchers are in danger of closing down day nurseries, affecting all provision for younger children, and having a knock-on effect for many working parents who will no longer be able to afford child care for their new babies.
Educating children at the age of four cannot be prescriptive, since children learn at different levels and in different ways, so why has the Government forced a scheme upon us that will not allow children to learn in the way best suited to them in the establishment of their choice?n
The writer is national secretary of the National Private Day Nurseries Association.
IN FAVOUR: Linda Kitchener
Linda Kitchener lives in Martham, Norfolk. She is a single mother with three children: Lee, nine; Anne-Marie, eight; and Kelly-Anne, five. Last year Norfolk took part in the nursery voucher pilot scheme and she received nursery vouchers for her youngest daughter.
"Having nursery vouchers made a big difference to me, because without them I could only have sent Kelly-Anne to playgroup for two mornings a week. I'd been on my own since March, and financially things were very tight. I only had pounds 84 a week income support for the four of us, and paying for Kelly-Anne's playgroup took quite a bit out of that, at pounds 2 a session.
"But when the vouchers were introduced in April it meant I could send her along for five days a week, without worrying about whether I could afford it. It was obvious she was benefiting from spending the extra time there: she started to talk more and did well with her work. She used to bring pictures home with her and tell me her alphabet. I was delighted.
"The vouchers were worth about pounds 40 a month, which may not sound a lot to some people, but was a huge amount for me, and over the eight months that Kelly-Anne was at playgroup the money would have really added up.
"At the beginning of this year Kelly-Anne started at school, and I think that the fact that she had been going to playgroup full-time beforehand helped prepare her. She had learnt to mix with other children and loved the company. I'm not saying that without the vouchers she would have been behind where she is now, but I'm sure that the move to school wouldn't have been as easy for her.
"The vouchers also helped me. When I could only afford to send Kelly- Anne to playgroup for two mornings a week I was trying to teach her things myself, but it was hard work and I didn't feel that being at home with me was enough for her. She was on the go all the time and needed the extra stimulation from being with other children. Having the vouchers took the pressure off me and I knew that she was getting the best out of the system.
"I think it would be a real shame if the scheme was scrapped, because I know of other children who have benefited like Kelly-Anne. There must be plenty of parents who want to do the best for their children, but just can't find the money. I'm just glad we had the chance"n
INTERVIEW BY SARAH EDGHILL
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