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Blunkett orders faster abolition of vouchers

Two proposals for abolishing the English nursery voucher scheme have been rejected by the Government.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is insisting that civil servants' proposals to dismantle the unpopular scheme this autumn or next spring are too slow.

He wants vouchers to be dumped swiftly and replaced with a free place for every four-year-old in the country.

But, although Mr Blunkett is expected to make a statement within a week, he has not been able to match the speed of the Welsh Office which announced its plans to abandon vouchers.

The Welsh scheme, which had only been in place five weeks, will be abolished from this September. Funding will be returned to education authorities, and parents using nursery places in the private and voluntary sectors will be given a certificate to replace the #163;1,100 voucher until the spring term of 1998. In the meantime, Welsh Office minister Peter Hain will be talking to all interested parties about a permanent alternative to the voucher scheme.

The English voucher scheme was piloted in four education authorities last year and implemented nationwide in April. Civil servants have told authorities that the Government has two options: end the scheme in August or September this year or in March 1998. But some authorities would have difficulties in ending the scheme after one term because they have changed their school management formulas to accommodate vouchers.

Some authorities want to simply eliminate the "paper chase", the paperwork the voucher scheme generates. They want to count how many four-year-olds they had on roll and seek a reimbursement.

Others are suggesting an interim measure for September which would give authorities the breathing space to develop plans for April 1998.

Mr Blunkett is being bombarded with suggestions for abolition by anti-voucher pressure groups, including the influential Association for Chief Education Officers (ACEO).

Roy Jobson, the association's chair and chief education officer for Manchester, said 180 heads unaninmously called for the swift abolition of the scheme at a recent primary headteachers' conference in his authority. He said: "Dismantling the scheme does not have to be complicated. It is a question of working out the best way forward."

But he said that one of the problems was making the scheme equitable, especially for high providers of nursery education, such as Manchester, which had been paying for free places for four-year-olds for years.

There is also the question of the #163;390 million worth of new money the Conservative government poured into the scheme.

It is not clear yet how that money will be used and whether the new administration will have enough cash for free places for all four-year-olds.

However, the ACEO is confident that a combination of the education authorities' voucher money, the new money, plus cash reaped from a reduced benefits bill will provide a free place for every four-year-old.

Mr Jobson is keen to form partnerships and develop plans with the private and voluntary sectors so they do not lose out after abolition.

Both the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents 20,000 playgroups in England, and the National Private Day Nurseries Association, which has over 1,000 members in Great Britain, are also anxious to talk.

The alliance fears a return to pre-voucher days when education authorities controlled the funding. It wants the money to follow the child so that children from poor families can receive free education.

Margaret Lochrie, the alliance's chief executive, said: "Recent research by the charity has shown that only 14,000 children get help with pre-school fees from local authorities, but the alliance estimates that more than 200,000 children from low-income families need help now."

The new Government will also have to satisfy parents in areas where there are limited nursery or playgroup places.

Three mothers in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire are worried about their limited choices being restricted further if the Government does not help to pay for places at private nurseries.

But one of the mothers, Karen Paige, said: "It doesn't matter how the money is given to you - by vouchers, the Government or the council - as long as the place is free."

Debra Cole and Vivienne Darnell feared that some parents who received up to #163;1,100 through the nursery voucher scheme this year for their first child would not receive the same money for their second child.

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