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Empty places cost Pounds 20m, says report

Spare nursery places in disadvantaged areas and a failure by some councils to give parents the service they need are highlighted in an Audit Commission report on early-years provision, to be published today.

The report, a draft of which has been leaked to The TES, says that a mismatch between what councils provide and what parents want may have contributed to the large number of unfilled places in some deprived areas of Britain.

Take-up of places is a recurrent theme in the report and the commission is calling for action.

It says: "Under-occupancy of local authority nursery classes and schools is not well documented, but it certainly occurs. In one nursery school which the study team visited, occupancy was only 78 per cent. There was some under-occupancy in nursery classes and schools in at least four of the 12 authorities studied by the commission. On the basis of fieldwork data, under-occupancy can be estimated to average about 3 or 4 per cent." This suggests a Pounds 12million-a-year potential saving or an opportunity to use the money more efficiently elsewhere, it says And in a section on improving take-up of places, the commission says: "If parents' preferences are ignored, they do not take up the services . . . It is not uncommon for nursery classes in deprived areas to be under-occupied. Whatever the reason, low take-up means that children do not receive the benefit of nursery education. Where parents are not taking up the service, authorities should find out why - for example, by conducting opinion surveys of parents. They should then make affordable changes to reflect parental demands."

The Audit Commission team established that in some deprived areas the lack of before-and-after care was a significant obstacle to taking up nursery education but that in other disadvantaged areas there was little demand for it.

The commission is also concerned about the take-up of places in day nurseries, particularly in English metropolitan districts and counties. The average occupancy rate for England and Wales is 80 per cent. The commission calculates that the elimination of these spare places would give a potential saving of Pounds 18million but it thinks a more realistic estimate is Pounds 8million.

Many authorities tackle the problem of spare places in nursery classes and schools by offering extra sessions to children already on roll. Authorities either offer the spare places to three-year-olds or offer parents of four-year-olds five full-day sessions a week instead of five half-days (11.3 per cent of nursery education pupils attend full-time), says the commission.

Examples of education authority practice pepper the report. Labour-controlled Humberside is mentioned for its worthy but expensive peripatetic nursery teaching teams which visit children in rural areas, and Berkshire, which is run by Liberal Democrats, Labour and Independents, is included because of its decision to invest heavily in existing local playgroups instead of nursery classes.

The Audit Commission study is based on a survey of 12 councils including visits to 212 types of pre-school. Early-years specialists carried out 52 educational inspections, Gallup surveyed parents and a questionnaire was sent to all social services authorities.

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