Labour fury at 'light touch' check on nurseries

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Private nurseries will be able to offer education paid for by government nursery vouchers with only the most basic checks on the quality of the service they provide, according to documents obtained by the Independent. Last night, Labour said the revelation was "a scandal and an outrage".

It has also emerged that some parents in two pilot areas for the pounds 1,100 vouchers will be unable to use them because there will not be enough places to go round. In Westminster and Norfolk, several hundred will be disappointed.

Although there will be a "light touch" inspection of allnurseries accepting vouchers within the first year, the Department for Education and Employment has confirmed that this might not include a visit.

Experts have long been concerned about the quality of private nursery provision, and last year the schools inspection body, Ofsted, said that although standards of literacy and numeracy were adequate they were unsatisfactory in most other areas. Information sent out by the department to potential providers says that any registered day nursery or school, state or independent, will be able to accept nursery vouchers. In return it must agree to publish information on staffing and premises, to work towards a set of educational goals and to be inspected.

Margaret Hodge, head of Labour's nursery inquiry, said nurseries could get on to the scheme simply by filling in a form and that they might not be visited at all. "What really counts if a child is to succeed in later life is the quality of the nursery education experience. It is a scandal and an outrage that the Government are allowing this," she said.

Nursery experts have said that the vouchers may encourage sub-standard private schools to set up classes for the under-fives so that they can redeem the pounds 1,100 vouchers which will be sent to parents of all four- year-olds.

Susan Hay, who runs a chain of nurseries in London, said many new nurseries would not have their education inspected for some time. "There will be a lot of people seeing it as an opportunity to get into this business and they will be allowed to operate for a considerable period during which parents' and children's expectations may not be met."

Day nurseries or schools which do not have more than five children over five are registered under the Children Act and are inspected to ensure that they meet health and safety standards, but education standards are not checked.

Other schools are registered with the education department and receive a one-day visit from an inspector, which includes a look at basic safety provision and a glance at the curriculum. A follow-up visit checks on whether changes have been made before full registration is granted, but the procedure is "basic", according to Ofsted.