Playgroups threaten to quit nursery voucher plan

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

The Pre-School Learning Alliance yesterday threatened to pull out of the Government's controversial nursery vouchers scheme on discovering that playgroups will only get pounds 550 to provide a part-time place, half what the voucher will be worth to private and state nurseries offering the same service.

Robin Squire, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for under-fives, moved swiftly to defuse the situation by promising to reconsider the cut-price voucher scheme for playgroups if they can prove the places cost more.

Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said yesterday that she was shocked at the suggestion of a cut-price voucher. Playgroups, or pre-schools as they are now known, would have to provide education to the same standard as everyone else providing nursery education.

The alliance argues that although a typical place in a pre-school currently costs pounds 325 per year for two mornings or afternoons a week, five sessions per child per week would cost more than pounds 1,100 - the full cost of the voucher - because of additional costs in staffing, premises and equipment.

"This is the Government's way of saving money," Ms Lochrie said. "There is no room for negotiation. If this is a free market then our groups should participate on the same basis as everyone else.

"Many of our pre-schools already cost more than the pounds 550 which has been proposed. Others need additional funding to improve their resources and to expand their provision for children currently attending fewer than five morning or afternoon sessions a week."

If pre-schools did accept a recommendation from the alliance that they should not co-operate with the voucher scheme, it would deal a damaging blow to the Government's commitment to providing quality pre-school educational provision for all four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Pre-schools currently provide places for more than 200,000 four-year- olds and they are crucial to the rapid expansion of places that will be necessary if the estimated 150,000 four-year-olds - 10 per cent of the year group - who do not have any pre-school provision are to be catered for.

The Government gave no clue that it would be offering less to the pre- schools when it had discussions with the alliance last Thursday morning, ahead of the voucher announcement in the House of Commons. Alliance officials found out later from an official at the Department of Education and Employment.

The pre-schools appear to be being penalised because they provide bargain- basement-priced pre-school education. Parents typically pay less than pounds 3.50 per session.

Costs are low because pre-schools rarely have their own premises, they rent church halls and village halls, for example, trained staff are lowly paid and parents volunteer their help.

Pre-schools often have long waiting lists and places are rationed so that they are spread as far as possible. A child will attend, on average, for two or three mornings or afternoons a week. Only about 1,500 pre-schools out of the 20,000 in England currently can provide full day care and education for a child five days a week at a cost of about pounds 4,000 per year.

t The Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority announced yesterday that it would begin consultations on a nursery curriculum in September.