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Drawing all sides together

Amid rows over nursery places, money and mountains of paperwork, nursery vouchers had a difficult birth earlier this year. But with the general election only four weeks after their official launch, their life was cut pitifully short.

One of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett's first decisions was to scrap nursery vouchers from this summer.

Labour's plans herald a radical change of scenery. Co-operation is the new buzzword. Out goes the competition unleashed by market forces under the voucher system, to be replaced, Mr Blunkett says, "by close consultation and co-operation between parents, providers, local education authorities and the private and voluntary sectors".

A new system involving all sectors to provide a nursery place for every four-year-old - and eventually every three-year-old too - is being put into effect. The #163;674 million previously spent on vouchers for parents will be given, instead, direct to local authoritie s to pay for nursery places in their areas.

At the heart of the new system will be "early years forums", organised by local education authorities, on which commercial nursery operators, playgroup leaders, voluntary sector interests and everyone else involved in under-fives provision will be represente d.

Between them, and under the leadership of the local authority, they will be expected to draw up early years development plans, spelling out how places for all the nursery-age children in their areas will be allocated, by April next year. Mr Blunkett has made clear he will expect the places to be provided in the commercial and voluntary sectors as well as in local authority-run schools and classes. Those who can have been asked to provide interim plans straight away.

The many local education authorities that have already established under-fives policies are expected to slip easily into the new structure. These authorities have well-

developed services for under-fives and are used to working with the private and voluntary sectors, often in early years forums similar to those being set up by the Government.

Mr Blunkett's home town of Sheffield, for example, is proud of its early years service. The city is divided into 23 areas, each with a planning group of representatives of playgroups, childminders, private day centres, the local auth-ority, nursery schools and everyone else involved in providing for children under eight.

The Young Children's Service, set up three years ago and run from the council's education department, aims to integrate all education and care services in the city.

Each group meets every six weeks to discuss provision for the children in its area. City-wide, a "college of representatives" with members from all the 23 smaller areas, meets to discuss issues affecting the whole city. The structure means early years providers can be consulted quickly on all aspects of provision in the city.

Ann Jamieson, head of the service, believes the council is responding to local needs. "We know the strengths and weaknesses in each area so we know how we can best help," she says. "We're probably further down the road of planning and partnership than many other authorities, so we will be able to build on existing strengths."

But other local authorities may find it less easy. Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, representing the voluntary sector, says many pay only lip service to co-operation.

"Most problems arise in local authorities with little nursery provision of their own," says Mrs Lochrie. "They will have the most difficulty working in partnership. They may have a partnership policy but it doesn't stop them changing their admission procedures with no consideration of the effect on private and voluntary providers."

Mrs Lochrie also points out that under the new arrangements, local authorities will be free to spend less than the #163;1,100 they will be given for each nursery-age child. In that respect, she suggests, the new system is a step backwards from the voucher scheme, which guaranteed the money for each child. The danger, she says, is that it will be eaten up by local authority administration.

The private sector also sees the new arrangements as a big improvement on vouchers which, because of the expansion of school reception classes, cut their numbers hugely in some places.

But there are fears over how the local forums will work. Susan Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks, a company that runs six nurseries in London, says: "We are happy in theory. But we want to make certain we are properly represented on the forums, and that every sector has an equal chance of bidding for funding."

The summer will see full consultation with everyone involved before legislation is drawn up.

But Wendy Scott, chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, which has members in all sectors, warns progress may not be easy. "Ways will have to be found to co-operate properly. In a big authority the early years forum could be unwieldy so it would have to be broken up into smaller units. And ways will have to be found for people who may be in competition to talk to each other. Some authorities will need help."

But the local flexibility built into the new arrangements could be an advantage. Sue Owen, acting director of the National Children's Bureau's early childhood unit, says vouchers offered local auth-orities and schools little scope for working with the private and voluntary sectors. They tended to set public and private sectors against each other.

But initiative and imagination will now have free reign, she says. "The voucher system was supposed to encourage the private and voluntary sectors,but in practice it made them even more the poor relations.

"The new system will be difficult but it opens the way for local authority innovation. They are not being told what to do. They are being offered a chance to do something that makes sense for their own communities."

See story 'Unity with a purpose', page IV

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