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No promises on nursery vouchers

The Government's early-years task force faces a tall order, reports Susan Young. The Government's new task force on nursery education appears unlikely to recommend a voucher scheme to fund new provision - the option most popular with the Tory Right.

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has previously appeared lukewarm about the voucher option, although she stressed when she announced the creation of the task force this week that it would be considering all options for pre-school provision.

It is understood that Department for Education officials can see no way around the "dead weight" problem - that few extra places would be created by a voucher scheme because parents already paying for nursery places would simply get the same provision free, while others would stick with their free education authority classes. Rigorous means-testing would create its own difficulties.

The preferred option is believed to be using earmarked Grants for Educational Support and Training money, generally regarded as a "pump-priming" allocation to get local authorities to put in 40 per cent of a scheme's cost.

However, unless the Treasury sets the cash aside by the end of this month, it is unlikely that any schemes could be put into operation before April 1996, almost certainly less than a year before the next election. Prime Minister John Major has promised that a start will be made on increasing pre-school provision before the end of this Parliament.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities said it would be unfair if councils spending below their Standard Spending Assessment on nursery provision were rewarded with extra money for nursery classes.

Education officer Alan Parker said: "The only way that they can achieve their aims is to provide extra money for local authorities through the rate support grant. The SSA should be adjusted so that funding follows provision rather than according to population."

The task force of three senior DFE officials - under-secretary Michael Richardson, assistant secretary Michael Hipkins and principal officer Mila Watts - will have many problems to tackle over the next months. Not least will be providing the maximum number of new places for the minimum cash.

They are summoning under-fives groups and other lobbyists for consultations, accepting unsolicited submissions and working closely with the departments of Health and Employment, the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry before reporting sometime in the New Year. In addition, Mrs Shephard is determined that the Office for Standards in Education will be fully involved. "Our objective is to provide education for the early years, not childminding, " she said, stressing that the "mixed economy" of public and private provision should continue.

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