The Conservative flagship voucher scheme officially went national on April 1. Next week, half a million four-year-olds will be arriving at nurseries, schools and playgroups metaphorically clutching these tokens of free market economics.
The Government claimed that the scheme, piloted over the past year in four local authorities, would increase places, particularly in the private and voluntary sectors and raise standards. But will it?
A TES survey of a cross-section of LEAs revealed considerable scepticism about the scheme. Most wanted it abolished, half were unhappy with inspection arrangements. Of the 67 that responded, 80 per cent said no new nursery places had been created.
Just over a third said there would not be a place for all four-year-olds in their area. A third of respondents, however, said there were enough places available, 10 because of the scheme, while a further 12 appear to have enough in any case.
The survey confirms the growing trend for four-year-olds to enter reception classes. About two-thirds of the LEAs that responded said most four-year-olds were in reception. But only nine said their schools had changed their admissions policies because of the scheme.
It has, however, proved difficult to determine the picture for private nurseries and playgroups, because LEAs do not have the figures and no central information is collected.
Half the LEAs did not know what effect the voucher scheme would have on playgroups. Eleven playgroups, however, have closed in Norfolk, one of the pilot LEAs. Once Capita, the agency contracted to manage the finances, receives all the voucher returns, the national picture should become clearer.
In the shire counties and metropolitan districts outside London, there was widespread criticism of the quality of inspections. A majority said they were unhappy with inspections under the current scheme, in which state-funded nursery schools and classes will be given full inspections by the Office for Standards in Education lasting at least three days, while those in the private and voluntary sectors will be inspected for only a day by inspectors hired by the Group 4 security company.
Wolverhampton council said the standards and expectations identified for inspections were sound, but that there was inconsistency between the "single day events" planned for the voluntary and private sector and the full OFSTED scrutinies for state nursery schools.
Labour-controlled Dudley metropolitan borough said there was some doubt that enough inspectors would be recruited in the first year of the scheme.
It said the inspection system for LEAs was a "professionally sound process", but that the inspection of private and voluntary sector provision by a single inspector disregarded the "advantages and proven reliability of team-working in order to achieve consistent judgments".
Northamptonshire said the different inspection regimes meant there was "unlikely to be an equality of approach or standards".
Several LEAs said standards for inspectors were not high enough. Some said inspections ought to be carried out jointly by education and social services teams. Kent County Council said it was particularly concerned that inspections were co-ordinated with those already carried out under the Children Act by social services inspectors.
"We would like to see a common inspection regime, with rigorous standards, " the LEA said, because feedback from nursery groups revealed "significant concerns over lack of consistency".
Walsall said inspections ought to be "entirely within the remit of the LEA".
In their report on the nursery voucher scheme, MPs on the House of Commons select committee criticised the poor quality of reports by registered nursery inspectors.
They said they were worried about the organisation of inspections and warned that careful attention should be paid to the suitability and relevant expertise of inspectors.
The survey revealed overwhelming rejection of the scheme in the English provinces, with 19 councils wanting it scrapped and nine saying it ought to be replaced with a system devised by LEAs and voluntary and private groups. Hull summed up the feelings of many, describing the scheme as "bureaucratic, expensive and unnecessary".
A huge effort to publicise the voucher scheme was revealed in responses from many LEAs which described leaflets, posters, phone information lines, training sessions and meetings for parents.
Many thought parents generally understood how the scheme worked. North Somerset said some parents misunderstood that "nursery" could include the use of vouchers in schools, while Cambridgeshire said it faced problems because of the number of children from traveller families, those whose first language was not English, and those who were with service families.
All 152 education authorities in England and Wales were contacted last week. Sixty-seven replied.
"Don't knows" and "no comments" are excluded from the figures.
1 Has the voucher scheme created new nursery places?
Yes: 11 No: 54 2 Is there a place for every four-year-old in the authority?
Yes: 43 No: 23 3 Would you like the voucher scheme to be revisedscrappedreplaced by another scheme involving council, private and voluntary providers?
Revised: 2 Scrapped: 42 Replaced: 15 4 Are you happy with arrangements for nursery inspections?
Yes: 9 No: 33 5 Have school admission policies changed because of the scheme?
Yes: 10 No: 55 6 Have playgroupspre-schools been closed or threatened by closure because of vouchers?
Yes: 5 No: 26 7 Is the education of three-year-olds in jeopardy?
Yes: 10 No: 40 8 Do parents understand the scheme?
Yes: 22 No: 23