Nursery vouchers run into trouble

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have offered almost pounds 1m in sweeteners to four local authorities that are launching the Government's nursery voucher scheme, the Labour party claimed yesterday.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, accused the government of making "back room deals" to get the scheme, due to start this week, off the ground. Under the programme, all the parents of four year olds should receive a pounds 1,100 voucher which they can spend in either private or state nursery schools. Local authorities that take part lose their government spending allowance for nursery education and must win it back by attracting parents to their schools.

However, a parliamentary answer to Mr Blunkett shows that instead of clawing back pounds 11.88m from the authorities, the government has kept just pounds 10.9m. The biggest winner is Wandsworth, which has gained pounds 460,000.

Ministers said the concessions compensated authorities for taking children from beyond their borders who did not have vouchers. But Mr Blunkett said they had been forced to undermine the principles of the scheme to make it work.

"Even the pilot projects have proved unworkable without considerable political manoeuvring. Parents and schools alike want a straight forward programme to develop nursery education, not political jiggery-pokery" he said.

There should have been 12 pilot authorities this year but there were so few volunteers that the scheme is to be tested in just four - Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Norfolk. In some of these areas the project is already in trouble - in Wandsworth just 76 per cent of eligible parents have applied for a voucher, in Norfolk 87 per cent have done so. Wandsworth is the only authority which has enough places for all its four year olds.

Other concessions have been made, giving the pilot authorities extra approval to build new nurseries and letting them distribute the voucher income themselves.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said the reduction in claw back would prevent the pilot authorities from losing money. Next year there would be no need for concessions because all children would have vouchers, he said.

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