Four-year-olds are not guaranteed a nursery place under the Government's voucher scheme, ministers admitted yesterday. And some nursery schools will be able to operate for up to a year before they are inspected, Robin Squire, the schools minister, said.
He insisted vouchers would increase the number of nursery places, but added: "It is impossible to say that on 1 April next year every single four-year-old will have a place." Providers of nursery education would have to fill in forms saying what education and staff they could offer before being allowed to receive vouchers.
"Self-assessment will deter the frivolous," he said. He admitted it would be possible for them to operate for up to a year offering education that might later be pronounced inadequate: "There is a trade-off between the necessity of having large numbers of providers and the importance and timing of inspection. The pounds 1,100-a-year vouchers for parents in four pilot local authorities will be issued in the next two weeks.
David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, said: "Three of the four local authorities have said that they are unable to guarantee a place in return for a voucher. Where there is no place there can be no choice.
"The proposed inspection regime, which during the first year will only require providers to validate themselves, is hardly a guarantee of high- quality provision." He questioned whether the Office for Standards in Education would be able to cope with the workload created by the scheme.
The office is still struggling to inspect all primary schools. There will have to be 12,000 inspections of private and voluntary nurseries in 1997, and 4,000 additional inspectors will be needed for day-long visits to nurseries.
Mr Squire said inspection would be "light touch, not soft touch". All private and voluntary providers would need to be registered under the Children Act, safeguarding health and safety. Those that failed to come up to scratch would lose their validation and close at once, though parents' voucher money would not be refunded.
Fewer than half existing playgroups are expected to apply to join the voucher scheme. The rest believe they do not yet meet the Government's standards.
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive officer of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said: "We will do all we can to create the new places which are required for four-year-olds, but more funds are needed to train additional staff and for new premises."
All nursery education providers will have to show they are working towards goals for what five-year-olds should know. These, drawn up by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, include first steps towards literacy and numeracy and a sense of right and wrong. Vouchers will be sent each term by an agency, which will write to parents through the Child Benefit Centre. Parents will have to complete a form and return it.