pounds 1,100 nursery voucher scheme to be launched

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The Independent Online

The new Department of Education and Employment will today launch the Government's long-awaited initiative to offer nursery vouchers for four- year-olds.

The vouchers, expected to be launched in pilot areas next year, will give parents pounds 1,100 towards the cost of pre-school education. But it is likely that some parents may have to "top-up" their value to buy the education they want.

Some estimates put the cost of a place in a state nursery school at around pounds 2,000 a year, and a nursery class in an infant school up to around pounds 1,400.

Government sources say they intend to create the opportunity for parents who wish to supplement state funding for their children's education.

But the blurring between state and private funding for education is likely to cause fierce protests, with Labour condemning it as the end of free universal state education.

It is expected that the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, will announce that vouchers will be delivered, where appropriate, with child benefit payments. Parents could use the vouchers to buy whatever nursery provision they wanted, whether local authority, private or playgroup.

The announcement by Mrs Shephard will fulfil the Prime Minister's promise at last year's Tory party conference to offer nursery education to all four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Education vouchers have long been a favoured idea of the Tory right, as the best means to deliver parental choice. Critics, however, say they would be a "bureaucratic irrelevance" which would do nothing to create more nursery places. They argue that they would subsidise those who have already opted for private provision.

Today's announcement will be the first of several policy initiatives promised by Mr Major's newly reshuffled Government.

But it is certain to attract widespread criticism from Labour, which has pledged to introduce nursery provision for all three and four-year- olds.