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All eyes on the nursery as vouchers take effect

The youngest primary pupils always get the most attention when the schools start, especially if they come in sets of twins or even triplets. They are more photogenic than, say, 12-year-olds debouching from the bus as they mark the rite of passage to secondary school. But this year much attention will go not to five-year-olds but to their slightly younger brothers and sisters.

The nursery world is about to bask in unprecedented publicity. This month only a small number of parents will turn up at the doors of local authority, voluntary and private pre-five establishments bearing vouchers, but by next August the parents of every four-year-old will be entitled to "buy" a year's education. (Labour will be faced with a problem if the party wins power just before the vouchers scheme goes national, but that is a bridge that need not be crossed for the moment.) Four local authorities will pilot the vouchers scheme this session. There will be ample evaluation. Councillors will want to know the success, and prosaically the financial viability, of projects which set them at odds with opinion in the large majority of authorities and, if polls are to be believed, with most of the electorate. In addition, national evaluation is being undertaken by Stirling University at the Government's behest.

Even among participating councils there is a belief that the Pounds 1, 100 voucher will prove inadequate to underwrite the expansion of provision needed to achieve the Government's target of a place for every four-year-old whose parents want it.

But whatever the outcome of the pilot, proponents of vouchers can point to a remarkable degree of interest in pre-school education. Labour authorities which shunned the pilot have sought to extend their own provision despite their much publicised shortage of money. Everyone agrees that the country needs to catch up with other members of the European Union in offering nursery education for all. The only controversy is about the mechanics.

Meanwhile uptake in the pilot authorities appears brisk. North Ayrshire, which encompasses remote rural as well as urban areas, has noted that vouchers have been sought for all but just over 100 of its 1,700 eligible children. A substantial number of voluntary groups have asked for approval as providers, but others have not, which suggests that the pros and cons are being weighed up.

The Government is investing a great deal of political (and moral) capital in the vouchers scheme. The pilots should indicate whether there is also enough of the financial kind. What could emerge is a stark distinction between projects that are up and running and where the voucher proves adequate, and those that need an investment in building and staff to get under way. The pressure will then turn on the Government.

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