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Blow for ministers in latest voucher study

The value of nursery vouchers in promoting choice among parents, the kernel of the Government's rationale, has been questioned in an evaluation commissioned by North Ayrshire.

The council is one of four piloting the voucher scheme this year, with Highland, East Renfrewshire and Argyll. The North Ayrshire study found the voucher system to be bedevilled by bureaucracy and posed a threat to parents' positive relationships with nursery schools.

But it is the poor showing of choice as an attraction of vouchers which will most depress ministers, who have authorised a controversial Pounds 900, 000 advertising campaign to promote just such a benefit. Asked what they liked about vouchers, only 13 per cent of 720 parents mentioned choice.

The main attraction for the local authority sector was that the provision was free, while parents with children at private nurseries cited the fact that the Pounds 1,100 voucher saved them money. Judith Gillespie, former convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who represented parents on the evaluation group, said this bore out critics' contention that Government money going into the private sector amounted to a straightforward subsidy for parents.

The North Ayrshire study looked in detail at the 19 nursery classes which have provided 700 new places under the pilot programme. It reinforced the view of researchers at Stirling University, which has been undertaking the official national evaluation, that parents welcome nursery expansion but are not too concerned with the way the places are provided.

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