Playgroups expect U-turn on voucher cash

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS are preparing to climb down over their controversial nursery school vouchers scheme after playgroup leaders threatened to pull out in a dispute over the amount of money available, write Fran Abrams and Judith Judd.

They had protested that plans to give them just pounds 550 for a part-time playgroup place while giving pounds 1,100 to local authority or private nursery schools were unfair. Now both playgroups and schools are likely to to receive the higher sum.

David Whitbread of the Association of County Councils said local authorities would not be happy with the change of heart as they would have to provide qualified teachers and fully-equipped premises for the voucher money while playgroups have no such requirements, although they would have to meet certain standards set by the school inspection body, Ofsted.

It is estimated that the increase in playgroups' vouchers would cost an extra pounds 100m on top of the pounds 165m of new money already allocated to offer a nursery place to every four-year-old.

Both local authorities and the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA) met Education Minister Robin Squire last week and were given the impression that the position of the Department of Education and Employment was softening.

A spokesman also hinted that progress was being made in the dispute, saying the department was optimistic that it would be able to find grounds for agreement.

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