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Fury at voucher snatch

Education authority leaders reacted with alarm last week when they discovered that the Scottish Office is planning to remove Pounds 40 million from council budgets to pay for the pre-school voucher scheme.

The first tranche of Pounds 26 million is to be removed next year to fund the part-year costs of vouchers, which are due to go nationwide next August following trials in four education authorities this session. The councils will only get their money back if parents use the vouchers at their nurseries rather than private centres or playgroups.

But they will not be able to assume this in their budget planning. Bob McKay, director or education in Perth and Kinross and president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, warned of further uncertainty as the Scottish Office had indicated there could be a delay in distributing the vouchers to help the private sector.

Elizabeth Maginnis, Edinburgh's chair of education, said the move would inevitable squeeze provision for three-year-olds and full-day places as councils impose cuts to avoid capping limits. The Pounds 1,100 vouchers will fund only children in their immediate pre-school year, largely in part-time morning or afternoon sessions.

"Does the Scottish Office really understand the implications?" Mrs Maginnis asked colleagues at last week's education committee meeting of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Edinburgh is likely to be hit because it already provides a pre-school place for all four-year-olds and because nursery spending has pushed the council's education budget 6-7 per cent above Government guidelines.

Joan Orskov, Aberdeenshire's education chairman, condemned what she described as a "double penalty" for councils that had chosen to expand nursery places at the expense of the rest of the service.

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