The successful company will become contracts administrator for the Office for Standards in Education. It must ensure that 700 nurseries in the four education authorities which have trialled nursery vouchers are inspected by the end of this year. By March 1998 the remaining 16,000 nurseries in the rest of England should also have been checked.
The administrator's job will be to evaluate tenders from inspection firms and award contracts. An OFSTED spokeswomen said an educational background was not essential. The contracts administrator may appoint any organisation it chooses to do the inspecting, so long as it is on OFSTED's approved list. This list will include education authorities, universities and private companies.
OFSTED has kept the names of the applicants secret. A few LEA representatives have been shown a list of 59 interested organisations. Most of the organisations on the list, such as the National Early Years Network, are active in early-years education.
But LEAs, under the impression that the inspection contractors would be directly responsible to OFSTED, are likely to react with fury to the news that they may have to apply to Group 4 Total Security.
Group 4 insists it is qualified to do the job. Stories about the company losing prisoners between police cells and a court are a myth, it claims, and a spokesman denied that if it got the job an epidemic of escaping four-year-olds would ensue.
The company has diversified from its core business: for example it holds a contract for training Benefits Agency staff.
Rob Souter, of Group 4 Securitas Training, who prepared the company's bid, said: "Our task is to ensure that OFSTED gets value in the market place. It needs an organisation which is used to handling large numbers of activities. "
And Dominic Hiney, accounts manager of Securicor Recruitment Services Limited, another applicant, said: "It is a sensitive time at the moment, we're all waiting for the result. But we have invested a lot into preparing for the application."