and JUDITH JUDD
Only five local councils are likely to be named as pilot English authorities for the Government's controversial nursery school voucher scheme when Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, announces details at the end of the month.
The eventual number of pilot authorities might even be as low as three, despite strenuous ministerial efforts to persuade councils to volunteer to try out the scheme, giving parents vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to trade in for their child's nursery education, from next February.
Lack of detail from the Government about how the scheme will work financially and the threat to the thousands of nursery places already being provided has, with a few exceptions, turned even the handful of Tory-run authorities off the project.
According to council insiders, the agreement of the Tory-controlled London boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth, and Buckinghamshire council, the only surviving Conservative shire county, was secured after Eric Forth, the education minister, called in the leaders of the three councils to convince them they should take part.
Buckinghamshire's agreement still has to be ratified by an education committee meeting next month. In the meantime, tomorrow it will press the Department for Education and Employment for answers about how vouchers will be redeemed and whether it will receive capital to build new nurseries.
Two further councils - the Tory-controlled London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Norfolk, which is a hung council - are also toying with the idea, but have offered no firm pledges, well over a month after the 31 July deadline for offers. "It would be putting it too strongly to say that we are negotiating," a Norfolk county council spokesman said.
Even Wandsworth, the most enthusiastic authority, has not yet taken a final decision. A spokesman said: "We want to issue the vouchers ourselves rather than have them distributed by a company as the Government wants. That seems to us unnecessary if there are only a couple of others taking part."
Critics will rank the small - and South-dominated - number of pilot councils as a significant humiliation for the Government, which originally said it wanted 12 authorities, later revised to 10, to take part.
Alan Parker, education officer for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said: "We are not in the least surprised that the scheme has attracted so little support."
Mrs Shephard has always entertained doubts about the practicalities, but John Major proved immovable from his view that the project should be the means of implementing his pledge of nursery places for all four- year-olds whose parents wanted them. The scheme would involve the Government holding back pounds 545m in grant to councils and redistributing it to parents. But parents will be able to spend vouchers in private nurseries or playgroups.Reuse content