Fears grow on vouchers for neediest

Diane Hofkins

Fears are growing in the early years world that the Government's curriculum targets for four-year-olds will do nothing to help the neediest children.

The Department for Education and Employment admitted this week that it has not yet worked out how the finances of the new nursery voucher system will apply to social services-run day nurseries, which cater for the 2 per cent of young children at the bottom of the heap.

Such nurseries will be able to apply to take part in the scheme, and receive vouchers, but would have to meet the educational criteria, said a DFEE spokesman. However, ministers have not yet decided whether funds will be deducted from local authority social service department budgets for children attending such nurseries if they decide to participate.

Under Government plans, the voucher's value, about Pounds 1,100, will be deducted from LEA budgets for each four-year-old in state education. Private nurseries and playgroups will have to show they are providing "education appropriate to stated learning achievements" to qualify for the vouchers.

Social services nurseries often provide little formal education for children, often those from families with difficulties. Early years experts are afraid the new system will widen the gap between care and education, since it has no mechanisms for increasing the education element in social services nurseries. Iram Siraj-Blatchford, president of the National Association of Nursery Centres, and a senior lecturer in early years at the University of London, says, "Particular attention ought to be paid to the curriculum for those children". However, staff, who are not trained teachers, usually lack access to in-service training on curriculum, assessment or children's learning.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has prepared attainment targets in a range of areas, such as language and literacy, mathematics and personal and social skills, and these are expected to go out to consultation in early September.

SCAA is to forward final advice to the DFEE by mid-November, after a six-week consultation, in order to have the guidelines in place for the launch of the first phase of the scheme in April, 1996. Government proposals for the implementation of the scheme are expected in late November, to coincide with the publication of a Bill.

In Scotland, meanwhile, Pounds 31 million in new money to fund vouchers for the 64,000 Scots four-year-olds will be spent, in addition to the estimated Pounds 39 million being spent at present by local authorities. Michael Forsyth, the new Secretary of State, this week launched a consultative paper on how to implement the scheme, setting out two alternative funding systems. A Pounds 3 million pilot scheme will begin in the 1996-97 school session.

* Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, has launched a national petition campaign against the voucher scheme.

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