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The high cost of vouchers

In 1989, Lady Plowden told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that every area needs a nursery school as a "beacon of excellence", but early years experts now fear that these beacons are in danger of being extinguished by the nursery voucher scheme.

Separate nursery schools are the most expensive form of pre-school education, largely because of the cost of having a headteacher, along with very low adult:child ratios. They are threatened, specialists feel, because of pressure to bring down the cost-per-child to the Pounds 1,100 price of the voucher, and because, with many of the children attending not yet aged four, the voucher scheme could divert funding from nursery schools altogether.

In the London borough of Wandsworth, one of the four voucher pilot local education authorities, plans were thwarted to cut Pounds 15,000 from the budgets of each of its nursery schools to bring costs more into line with nursery classes.

But in Hammersmith and Fulham, which does not join the voucher scheme until 1997, plans to cut budgets in three nursery schools are going ahead. They will each lose half a teacher.

Meanwhile, another nursery school will be closed, with children being allocated to new nursery classes in three church schools.

Teresa Meekings, a parent governor at James Lee Nursery School, which is losing .5 of a teacher, says the head will now have to teach half the week, and be less available to talk to parents and to support teachers. Parents are afraid the school will lose a weekly "nursery club" for inducting and assessing new entrants, that staff will lose the non-contact time which allows them space for reflection, and that special needs provision could be damaged.

These may seem like luxuries to the outside world, she says, but "this is what makes the nursery excellent".

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