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Critics outnumber the enthusiasts

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

Wandsworth and Buckinghamshire are two local authorities which look likely to take part in the voucher pilot next year. Although the authorities have not yet been chosen, Wandsworth is raring to go, and bursting with confidence that it will be chosen.

Virtually every four-year-old in the borough is in education. The LEA already offers a nursery guarantee, helped by the fact that more than half the under-fives go to private provision. "We have nursery classes in 48 council schools for three and four year olds catering for 2,350 children. The private sector provides 3,900 full and part-time places in 137 schools," said a spokesman. There are not many playgroups. Children start reception class in the September after their fourth birthday.

Although there is no need to increase places in Wandsworth, education chairman Edward Lister believes vouchers could transform education. "The psychology of vouchers is that they will raise expectations", said a spokesman. "They will change the relationship between parents and schools. Parents will have a taste of power, of being a customer."

Buckinghamshire, though interested, is making no decision about taking part in the first phase of the scheme until it has more details. It is committed to increasing nursery education, and currently has 572 pupils in six nursery schools, and 3,200 children in 34 nursery classes. Children start reception class in the term during which they reach the age of five.

Until three years ago, when it ran out of money, the county was aiming to open four nursery classes a year.

Parents struggling to pay for three sessions at Willen and Bolbeck Preschool in Milton Keynes have welcomed vouchers. "We can't really afford it," said Dawn Osborn, whose three-year-old son, Paul, attends the preschool. "You find the money. My husband is in and out of work. I think the vouchers are a really good idea. Every child should be able to go to a preschool."

Paul would be able to attend a fourth two-and-a-half-hour session when the voucher scheme started, and he could stay at Willen with his playmates instead of moving to a free nursery when he was four, said Mrs Osborn.

Alison Cressy, a supervisor at the preschool, also welcomed vouchers. Many parents had to cut sessions for their older child to pay for sessions for their second child.

A few miles down the road at the maintained Morlands nursery in Bean Hill parents knew nothing about the voucher scheme and had no desire to talk about it. The free places are paid for by Buckinghamshire County Council. Even if they wanted to send their children to a private nursery, high unemployment would prevent them from topping up the vouchers.

Although the Morlands management committee had not yet discussed vouchers, there was a general feeling that the scheme was "a cheap Government trick", said head Marie Gordon.

Back at Willen and Bolbeck Preschool, which has been accredited by the Preschool Learning Alliance, deputy supervisor Karen Lord said: "If parents get the vouchers, there will be a scramble for the popular schools . . . We have a waiting list. There are a lot of people who would like more sessions but we can't give them to them."

At Ronald Ross primary in Wandsworth, which serves a mixed area dominated by council estates with some private housing, nursery parents felt they wouldn't be affected as they had a nursery place, and liked using one in the primary school their children would attend. "I thought it was supposed to be guaranteed anyway in this borough", said one mother.

Just down the road at Noddy's Nursery, which provides all-day care from four months to five years for professional parents, views were mixed.

Margaret Morrell, mother of Lucy, three-and-a-half, thought the idea was "great". "It's affecting people at grass-roots level," she said. Britain lagged behind other countries in nursery provision. "At least people who have to work will get some help towards the cost of nursery," she said.

But Vivien Gunn, who has two children in the nursery and has just given up work, was angry about the policy. "In terms of choice, it's a misnomer", she said. "You want something close. You want continuity."

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