Vouchers for nursery 'may be lottery'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

The Government's nursery voucher scheme could turn out to be a lottery in which children in some areas will have little chance of a place, a new report suggests. It also shows that parents will face uncertainty over whether their children are receiving a quality education or not.

Research by the Audit Commission shows that in some areas there are only enough state nursery education places for a quarter of four-year-olds, while in others there are enough for 9 out of 10.

The report, published today, also reveals that middle-class children who receive nursery education can start school with a year's advantage over classmates from deprived areas who do not. Nursery schools give children six months' head start, while playgroups give them two.

According to the authors of Counting to Five, provision of nursery education is very uneven across the country. The worst provided-for area is Hereford and Worcester, where only 26 per cent of four-year-olds are in state nursery schools or reception classes, and the best is Knowsley, Merseyside,which provides for 95 per cent.

Although they suggest that private provision may be stronger in areas where the state sector is weak, the report says nursery education across the country is "uneven". Even where places are available they may not be taken up because of transport problems or because nursery schools finish hours before most parents finish work.

The quality of different under-fives services in playgroups and nursery schools varied from excellent to very poor. The only reliable way of ensuring a good education was to check whether a qualified teacher was in charge of the group, the analysis found.

Research carried out by Newcastle University for the commission revealed that going to nursery school could bring a disadvantaged child up to the average ability level or could put an advantaged child up to a year ahead.

Girls from middle-class families who had been to nursery school had the biggest advantage, while boys from deprived areas whose first language was not English suffered the biggest disadvantage.

Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, said councils must work with the private sector to counteract problems.

"Local authorities should take a positive approach to this important area. They should try to develop playgroups, private provision and their own provision," he said.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said the report proved the inadequacy of the Government's voucher scheme, which will be piloted in four areas from April this year and which will be extended nationally by April 1997.

"Vouchers will not give parents what they really want - high quality early-years education. Vouchers will not improve access and will not improve quality. Gillian Shephard should take note of the Audit Commission's overwhelming evidence and scrap the chaotic, confused voucher scheme," he said.

Margaret Lochrie, administrator of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which runs the playgroups, welcomed the report but said it contradicted earlier research which showed playgroups gave as big an advantage to children as nursery classes.

"This clearly refutes the idea that the only route to high quality is through nursery classes in schools. There is no conclusive evidence that one type of provision out-performs another," she said.