More guinea pigs in nursery voucher pilot

Linda Blackburne & Mark Jackson

Two more local education authorities have unveiled plans to join the Government's controversial nursery voucher pilot scheme.

The proposals by Norfolk, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's home county, and Westminster bring the number of guinea-pig councils to four. Wandsworth and Buckinghamshire have already declared an interest. Mrs Shephard called the decision by Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled Norfolk, the only non-Tory volunteer so far, "unqualified good news for children and their parents".

The Department for Education and Employment is still talking to a number of other authorities about the pilot. The Government wants Norfolk to contribute around Pounds 7 million (Pounds 1,100, the voucher value, multiplied by the number of four-year-olds who were being educated in the county in January 1995).

However, the county has strong reservations about the scheme and is still negotiating the precise amount it will have to pay. It also wants an "escape clause" with the right to take back the cash if, as county education officer Michael Edwards put it, "insuperable obstacles" are encountered between now and April when the pilot starts.

Norfolk has opened 11 nurseries since the Tories lost power in 1993. It sees some financial advantage in signing up for vouchers as there are few private nurseries in the county.

The council hopes to be running 30 nurseries by the time the scheme is implemented nationwide in 1997 - it plans to open six over the next year - and will therefore receive more vouchers back from parents. The gain is small but significant for an authority which, according to a Hansard league table, had only 34 per cent of its under-fives in nurseries and schools in January 1994.

Under the London borough of Westminster's plans, some of the country's most expensive private nursery schools are likely to be offered subsidies to create places.

The education committee has been told that it will cost around Pounds 450,000 a year to provide 700 places, some of which may be in playgroups and others in Pounds 6,000-a-year private schools. The council will have to spend another Pounds 100,000 a year on training and management, and help the schools with their capital costs.

Westminster will rely on its own maintained schools to find the other 300 places, but they will get no top-up to their voucher income. The subsidies will be conditional on schools meeting specific educational standards and the LEA plans to take a hand in training private nursery school staff.

Westminster began work on a plan to subsidise private and voluntary nursery education before the Government announced its own scheme. Although many of the borough's councillors and officers have expressed reservations about vouchers they agreed to pilot the scheme from next April.

The borough has asked the DFEE to help meet the capital costs of providing the extra accommodation in the private and voluntary sector.

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