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Independent nurseries demand fair deal

Working parents could be the "sacrificial lambs" under revised plans for comprehensive pre-five education, the Independent Nurseries Association has warned.

Patricia McGinty, a spokeswoman for the association, has pressed Sam Galbraith, the Children's Minister, to force councils to recognise the contribution of the private sector. Councils have been given the lead role in setting up places for four-year-olds next year.

Mrs McGinty, who runs a nursery in Bishopbriggs, told a Children in Scotland conference in Edinburgh: "We cannot force partnership and unfortunately the sacrificial lambs could be working parents who cannot take up their entitlement to nursery classes."

She said: "Unless we have got partnership enshrined in legislation, the response from local authorities will not be as we would like it to be. In some, they do not want to share funding with the independent sector. They would prefer to retain their own services."

Mrs McGinty believed councils should buy in places from the independent nurseries given the requirement to seek best value. Mr Galbraith, however, ruled out legislation. There was no parliamentary space for it and it would be a recognition of failure. Child care, he told the conference, encompassed more than nursery education. "That is a conceptual jump some people and the public need to make," he said.

Jim McGuinness, North Lanarkshire, said councils were not opposed to links. "There are areas where we won't find it easy to deliver and we will be happy to talk about partnership," he stated. But councils were concerned about assuring high quality services.

Mr Galbraith revealed that a New Opportunities Fund set up by the Government will give Pounds 25 million of lottery cash over the next five years to fund homework and out-of-school learning centres. A further Pounds 3 million for childcare projects will come from windfall tax receipts.

"These are the opening steps towards a much more integrated approach than ever before to the early years services," Mr Galbraith said. Final details of how the Government will meet its commitment to pre-school education for all four-year-olds will be announced at Easter. An extra Pounds 9 million has been injected into budgets to ensure councils will be able to deliver.

Mr Galbraith also revealed that plans for a UK childcare strategy will be announced later this year.

Research by Children in Scotland and the Scottish Local Government Information Unit has shown no movement towards merging education and social work departments in providing children's services, despite the opportunities provided by local government reform. Only Stirling has a corporate children's service.

Links between the two departments responsible for children tend to be through joint planning, task and strategy groups.

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