Vouchers threaten closure for playgroups

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Thousands of three-year-olds could be shut out of pre-school playgroups as local authorities dash for nursery voucher cash, it was claimed yesterday.

A survey of a sample of 115 councils by pre-school campaigners revealed that 9 out of 10 were preparing to admit four-year-olds into schools from September to ensure as many vouchers as possible were spent in the state sector.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance has warned that such a move would threaten the future of many voluntary playgroups, depriving parents of the choice over nursery places promised by the Government.

The closures, likely to total at least 700 according to the alliance, would mean at least 20,000 three-year-olds would miss out on a year of pre-school education.

Meanwhile four-year-olds, who are eligible for nursery vouchers, would be crammed into reception classes averaging 35 children as primary schools changed their admissions policies to cash in, said the alliance.

Parents would feel pressured to send their children to school by threats that they could otherwise miss out on a place at the school of their choice.

From April, parents of all four-year-olds will receive vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to spend in private, voluntary or local authority nurseries or schools. The scheme has already been piloted in four authorities, including Norfolk, where eight pre-schools have closed and eight more are likely to shut. The chief executive of the alliance, Margaret Lochrie, said: "We are deeply concerned that thousands of children will be caught in a political cross-fire for which they are not responsible."

The alliance wants a loophole closed in rules governing staffing ratios for classes of four-year-olds. By law, there must be no more than eight children to each member of staff in the voluntary and private sectors or 13 youngsters to one adult in state nurseries, but those limits do not apply to reception classes.

Linda Foot, a parent in Sherborne, Dorset, will send her son Mark to a primary reception class of 42 children aged four to six in September, just weeks after his fourth birthday.

She wanted him to stay at his playgroup until transferring to school next January but, with the advent of vouchers, the school is abandoning its mid-year intake. Mrs Foot said. "If I keep him in playgroup, not only will he miss all his friends, but I have been told he will lose his place at the school. I feel we have been forced into moving him when he may not be ready."

The schools minister, Robin Squire, said yesterday that parents should be given choice over nursery education. However, he said the Government had already asked LEAs and governing bodies to consider carefully any changes to admission policies.

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