Heads and council unite against vouchers

Linda Blackburne

Solihull's 72 primary headteachers this week launched a campaign against the Government's nursery voucher scheme for four-year-olds.

And the council, run by a Conservativeindependent coalition, has attacked the scheme as "a device to bail out dilatory authorities". Solihull says it is one of the nation's "high providers" of nursery education.

The council's education committee voted unanimously against nursery vouchers. Geoffrey Wright, the committee chairman, and two Solihull officers are to meet Michael Richardson, head of the Government's under-fives' task force, at the Education and Employment Secretary's invitation.

The headteachers, who call themselves the Solihull Primary Partnership of LEA schools, are trying to rally the support of parents and school governors.

They want Solihull to opt out of the voucher scheme. They argue that all the authority's four-year-olds are in school reception classes and 73 per cent of three-year-olds are receiving nursery education.

The partnership says the scheme would have a "devastating" effect on the children of Solihull. It says that Solihull, as a comprehensive provider for the under-fives, will lose Pounds 2.9m of the Pounds 3.3m the Government allocates it for the early years - the council actually tops this up to Pounds 6m .

The money would be clawed back by the Government and given to the agency that will issue the Pounds 1,100 vouchers to parents who are free to spend the cash at either local authority or private nurseries.

Pat Preedy, head of Knowle infants school, and Dave Dunkley, head of Coleshill Heath primary, who are chair and vice- chair of the partnership, said: "We have grave concerns about quality of education if private companies provide child care for our under-fives. How can it be ensured that their staff have the correct training, knowledge and understanding required. Quality education requires graduate training."

They say that although their four-year-olds are in reception classes and not nursery units, most of the teachers educating them have had early-years training.

Mr Wright, the education committee chairman, said that the Pounds 6m early-years budget was on a knife edge. Solihull would lose money under the voucher scheme and cash would either have to be deducted from other education budgets or from the early-years coffer itself, he said.

Solihull does not know how many, if any, parents would spend their vouchers at private nurseries and it believes no authority can plan its budget in the face of so much uncertainty.

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