The Government put a brave face yesterday on the under-powered launch of its pilot scheme for nursery-school vouchers, as Labour seized on its admission that parents with vouchers would not be guaranteed a school place.
Robin Squire, the education minister, admitted to "sadness" that only three local councils were committed to the scheme. But he said: "My disappointment is nothing compared to the parents of four-year-olds who next year will not have nursery provision but who could have ... if their local authority had decided to participate."
He blamed "party political influence" for the refusal of Labour councils to take part in the pilot first year of the scheme. After this year's local elections, only a handful of education authorities are Conservative- controlled and three of them, Westminster, Wandsworth, and Kensington and Chelsea, all in London, have agreed to take part. Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled Norfolk County Council has also agreed "in principle", but is arguing about whether it is allowed to borrow against future voucher income.
The four boroughs are estimated to contain 3 per cent of the 150,000 four-year-olds presently not at nursery school - fewer than one-third of the Government's original target of 10 per cent for its pilot.
Vouchers worth pounds 1,100 each will be delivered to the parents of an estimated 15,600 four-year-olds within three months, Mr Squire announced yesterday. About 4,500 of them will go to children who do not presently have a nursery place.
The vouchers can be cashed in for a part-time place at a local council nursery school, a private school, or a pre-school playgroup. The pounds 1,100 amount covers only about half the cost of a full-time nursery place.
Estelle Morris, Labour education spokeswoman, drew attention to the small print of a briefing note issued by the Department for Education which says there is "no cast-iron guarantee of a place, at least in the first instance, until new places are introduced in response to parent demand".
She contrasted this with the Prime Minister's speech to the 1994 Tory conference, when he gave a "cast-iron commitment" - although he did not say when.
But Mr Squire confirmed that the scheme will be extended to all four- year-olds in 1997, with parents expected to receive their vouchers before the last date for the general election in May that year.
When in full operation, the scheme would cost more than pounds 700m to run - pounds 165m in new money and the rest clawed back from local authorities. The administration of the full scheme is expected to cost pounds 20m. Officials said the cost of the first phase in the four local authorities would be pounds 22m - pounds 5m of which would be spent on inspection and administration.
Ms Morris said pounds 5m "could provide 8,000 extra part-time nursery places for three year-olds". She added: "There is no new money for capital spending or teacher training."
Mr Squire also announced that Capita Managed Services had won the contract to administer the first phase of the scheme. But he refused to give the value of the contract, claiming the information was commercially sensitive.
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