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11th-hour decision prompted by cash motive

Clare Dean on the early shock waves of the Government's new plans for four-year-olds. Norfolk's involvement in the nursery voucher pilot scheme was purely mercenary.

"Our political masters saw an opportunity to make some advantage in Norfolk, " said Paul Fisher, head of the county's education financial services. "We have just used the scheme for our own purposes."

The county's last-minute decision to join the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth allowed it to borrow another Pounds 1 million to provide new nursery classes on the strength of the income it would gain from vouchers.

In total, 8,976 vouchers were issued but only 79 per cent were redeemed - 46 per cent were in the maintained sector, 32 per cent in the private and voluntary sectors, and 3 per cent in independent schools.

But the authority, which is in Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's constituency, remains steadfastly anti-vouchers.

"Norfolk isn't in favour of vouchers," said Mr Fisher. "All we have done is simply to try to make the scheme work and balance the Department for Education and Employment's mind on practical realities."

As one of the four pilot authorities, Norfolk's experience of the nursery voucher scheme is sought by MPs and civil servants, council leaders and their officials.

Next month the all-party House of Commons Education Select Committee will travel to the county to witness how it works and to take evidence.

By Mr Fisher's own admission it is not a complicated process. He said schools had generally picked up administration arrangements very quickly.

Headteachers may have been helped by the Pounds 3 per voucher per term the authority has given to schools to spend on admin support for the scheme. The cash help - Pounds 60,000 in total - also acted as an incentive for schools to collect as many vouchers as possible. For in Norfolk the authority estimates just four youngsters - travellers' children - have not been identified.

Funding for vouchers is done through the authority's local management of schools scheme and headteachers have been told no voucher, no money.

The authority has absolutely no contact with vouchers. "We don't touch them. We don't want to," said Mr Fisher. "But we do handle the voucher income.

"We have 330 schools across the county who handle vouchers. Some only handle one voucher, others have 100 and they all send those vouchers directly to the agency. The vouchers don't come to us and we see no benefit of them coming to us."

In Norfolk it is estimated that more than Pounds 1 million has gone into playgroups and independent schools through vouchers.

Meanwhile the authority has opened or has plans to open 25 new nursery classes giving an additional 1,300 places.

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