Nursery vouchers `put places for three-year-olds at risk'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Tens of thousands of three-year-olds could be turned away from nursery schools as a result of the Government's plans to provide education for all four-year-olds, figures published today reveal.

Up to 133,000 nursery school places for three-year-olds could be put at risk, according to research carried out by the House of Commons library for Stephen Byers, MP for Wallsend and a member of Labour's frontbench education team.

Mr Byers said that the youngest children could be turned away to make room for more four-year-olds under the Government's voucher scheme, which is due to be tested in four pilot areas in 1996 and introduced nationally in 1997.

In order to pay for their promise to give a pounds 1,100 nursery voucher to all parents of four-year-olds, ministers propose to cut local authority grants for the under-fives to less than half their former level, from pounds 963m to pounds 415m. Authorities will have to compete with private nurseries for voucher-bearing children in order to recoup their losses.

The new figures show that 277,000 three-year-olds, about three out of every seven, currently have places in nursery schools or classes. Mr Byers believes that more than half that number will be turned away in future so that the Government can offer comprehensive provision for four-year- olds.

"It is now clear that tens of thousands of places presently provided for three-year-olds will be put at risk due to the Government's nursery voucher scheme. These figures show why Gillian Shephard has consistently refused to safeguard existing provision for three-year-olds," he said.

He said Labour's proposals on nursery education, due to be published in the new year, would be realistic and deliverable. The party would offer the entitlement of a free nursery place for every three- and four-year- old whose parent wanted it, he added.

According to the new figures, 6,580 full-time places would be at risk in Birmingham, and more than 6,000 in Cleveland and Leeds. A further 14 authorities could each lose more than 3,000. Birmingham currently has 10,500 three-year-olds in nursery education while Cleveland and Leeds each have 7,000. The analysis calculates the number of places which can be provided with the grant left to each local authority once the voucher scheme has been financed.

The voucher scheme, which includes pounds 165m of new money in addition to pounds 548m clawed back from local authorities, has already attracted a great deal of criticism because it will divert money from local authorities to private nurseries. Mrs Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, was reluctant to run the scheme because she believed it would be unwieldy and bureaucratic, but she was overruled by the Prime Minister and his Downing Street think-tank. Objections from the Treasury - which was reluctant to subsidise parents who were already paying for private places - were also brushed aside.

Ministers had planned to run a pilot scheme in 12 areas but only four local authorities - Norfolk County Council and the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth - have agreed to take part.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said that the clawback from local authorities was based on the number of four-year- olds for whom they currently provided places, so three-year-olds should not be affected.

"There is no reason why provision for three-year-olds should be affected by the nursery-education voucher scheme for four year-olds. The funding mechanism proposed ensures that local education authorities will not lose money if they continue to recruit the same number of four-year-olds," she said.