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Beware the 'cowboys'

The Prime Minister's fulfilment of his `cast-iron commitment' to nursery education has been greeted with a chorus of disapproval. Diane Hofkins and Linda Blackburne report on the scheme and its implications

Some private companies will see the voucher scheme as a boon, and several have already announced expansion plans. The vouchers will mean extra money for parents using private education, and help some to afford it.

There is no money to set up nurseries, however, although Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard said: "I think this is going to encourage enterprise for women."

But Susan Hay, of Susan Hay Associates, which runs five nurseries in the London area, said: "I think it's not going to make very much difference at all, and I think it's worse than nothing." Vouchers, she says, will not help expansion and supply of private services: "If you look at it from my point of view, and taking children at a very early age, four-year-olds probably amount to 15 to 20 per cent of my occupancy." In addition, children leave for primary school during their fourth year, so the nursery would not get its full value in any case. Most children begin coming much younger, so the voucher would not be an incentive to parents, she said. "For me, charging real prices, Pounds 1,100 doesn't make the difference between a yes and a no. It only helps those who are already paying." Other private providers warned the scheme would encourage "cowboys".

However, the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools welcomed the plan saying it would encourage diversity and help parents to afford private education. It was important that only schools of good quality would qualify, it said.

Mrs Shephard has said that providers will have to meet a quality threshhold, but the Government is considering relaxing health and safety standards in the Children Act.

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