Parents to be given nursery vouchers

Education market: Families will receive pounds 1,100 as scheme aims to provide 150,000 places for four-year-olds
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Parents of four-year-olds will receive pounds 1,100 vouchers in a scheme announced yesterday to provide 150,000 new nursery places.

As critics pronounced the scheme unworkable, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said pounds 165m new money would be available for the places. A further pounds 545m, about two-thirds of the pre- school funds allocated to local authorities, will be clawed back and redistributed through vouchers.

The vouchers, which are worth about half a full-time state nursery place, will allow parents to choose between a part-time place in a nursery class, a full-time place in a state school reception class and one in a private or voluntary nursery offering suitable education.

Mrs Shephard said: "Purchasing power in the hands of parents will stimulate a real market in the supply of places that parents want. Above all, parents will have real choice."

The vouchers will not be means-tested and parents who wish to buy more- expensive places in private nurseries will be able to top them up. The first vouchers will be issued in pilot areas next February and the scheme will go nation-wide a year later. Government curriculum advisers have been asked to produce a list of basic skills that nurseries will have to teach to qualify for vouchers. They include wider vocabulary, good behaviour and sorting and counting.

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which is already struggling to complete the four-yearly cycle of primary school inspections, will be given pounds 20m to ensure standards are maintained. Playgroups and private nurseries might be given money to improve in order to qualify for vouchers.

Ministers are considering distributing the vouchers through child benefit books but have to find a way of sending them to people whose child benefit is paid directly into the bank. A private company will be set up to administer the scheme and parents will be able to apply to it for their vouchers.

Mrs Shephard and Stephen Dorrell, the new Secretary of State for Health, will look again at existing requirements on child-adult ratios, buildings and planning to see if they can be eased to encourage private promoters of nursery education.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said ministers were abandoning quality standards. "This is a con-trick on children and on parents, an experiment in offering a paper promise without providing a single extra place in a nursery class in this country," he said.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The introduction of vouchers creates a dangerous precedent for the future of free education. It is aimed solely at appeasing the Government's right wing, as the timing proves."

Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning for the Royal Society of Arts, gave a cautious welcome to the move. His Start Right report on nursery education was published a month before John Major first announced his plans. "What has been decided is a commendable first step in the right direction," he said.