Nursery vouchers 'could be a lottery'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

The Government's nursery voucher scheme could turn out to be a lottery in which children in some areas will have little chance of a place, a new report suggests. It also shows that parents will face uncertainty over whether their children are receiving a quality education or not.

Research by the Audit Commission shows that in some areas there are only enough state nursery education places for a quarter of four-year-olds, while in others there are enough for 9 out of 10.

The report, published today, also reveals that middle-class children who receive nursery education can start school with a year's advantage over classmates from deprived areas who do not. Nursery schools give children six months' head start, while playgroups give them two.

According to the authors of Counting to Five, provision of nursery education is very uneven across the country. The worst provided-for area is Hereford and Worcester, where only 26 per cent of four-year-olds are in state nursery schools or reception classes, and the best is Knowsley, Merseyside,which provides for 95 per cent.

Although it suggests that private provision may be stronger in areas where the state sector is weak, the report says nursery education across the country is "uneven".

The quality of different under-fives services in playgroups and nursery schools varied from excellent to very poor. The only reliable way of ensuring a good education was to check whether a qualified teacher was in charge of the group.

Research carried out by Newcastle University for the commission revealed that going to nursery school could bring a disadvantaged child up to average ability or could put an advantaged child up to a year ahead.

Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, said councils must work with the private sector to counteract problems.

"Local authorities should take a positive approach to this important area. They should try to develop playgroups, private provision and their own provision," he said.