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Now you see them,now you don't

It should have been a job for Phil Harrass, Gregor Steele's privatised HMI who occasionally occupies the bottom of this page, but he had been sent off by Mickey the Ferret (surely not our Secretary of State?) in his trusty Rapide to track down parents responsible for authorised absences. It was up to me to field the information that was being downloaded off the Internet.

The source was the Department for Education and Employment, known to us Internet surfers as DfEE, and at first, as I sipped my coffee and lit my tenth cigarette of the day, it seemed the usual log-jam of words designed to overload the brain if not the system. But the words "nursery" and "vouchers" leapt out at me suggesting this was information that might fill in some of the missing pieces in my jigsaw. It would answer my question as to how the Government could expand nursery education to all four-year-olds without really paying for it.

Part of the answer came on the first page under "policy overview", where it stated that "parental choice is at the centre of the scheme - vouchers will put real power in the hands of parents" but went on to say "there will be no cast-iron guarantee of a place, at least in the first instance".

So there was the trick: the Government issued everyone with vouchers, but because there weren't enough places, it didn't actually have to pay out. A clever "no cost, plenty of kudos" scheme. But more was to follow: "part of the funding for the scheme - Pounds 545 million of the Pounds 730 million - will be from recycling of local authority education funding for four-year-olds". Nice word "recycling", it sounds so environmentally friendly, a matter of reusing something you have finished with.

More seriously it means the Government does not even have to consider paying for three-quarters of the cost. It gets all the credit for nursery education through the voucher scheme but leaves the local authorities to pick up the bill. And, if a quarter of parents still cannot find places, then no sweat. There is always the sound bite that, through the voucher scheme, a majority of four-year-olds are now having pre-school education. Neat one.

Then there is the useful by-product of a little work creation. Instead of parents simply wandering along to their friendly local nursery, they will now have to apply for vouchers. The costly bureaucratic process of making sure they do not try to defraud the system by passing grannies off as four-year-olds or exchanging the vouchers for actual cash is going to be a nice little earner for Capita Managed Services. Doubtless it will offer some kind of prize draw with the reward being all the play-dough you can collect on the bottom of your shoe in a three-minute sprint round the nursery.

And there is more. The Internet message explains how capital might be found to open new nurseries at no cost to the Government. "Grant-maintained schools . . . may also secure loans on the strength of anticipated voucher incomes", while "state schools can also enter into arrangements with the private sector using new freedoms under the private finance initiative". As private finance tends to want a profit from any loan, there might not be too much left over from the Pounds 1,100 voucher to pay for the actual education. It is looking more and more like another Government policy that it is all done with mirrors.

I decided to investigate further. How will this work in Scotland? The first port of call was Deep Pen, who told me that at present the Government funds only a third of nursery education: some Pounds 21 million against a total spend by local authorities of Pounds 65 million. This means that authorities fund two-thirds of the costs out of their discretionary funds, including money raised through the council tax. But there is bad news coming over the Internet: many authorities are so squeezed for cash this year that they are having to cut money from nursery provision. There has even been talk of selling the service to the private sector, of setting up "nursery directs".

But hang on. If all the nursery places are private, then the scam of making local authorities pick up the bill will not work. There is no "clawback" from the private sector and every voucher would have to be redeemed for its full value. Why, that could cost millions in new money and leave the local authorities free to transfer the money they currently spend on nursery education back into ordinary schools.

Wow, wait till Phil Harrass gets back and I tell him the good news.

Judith Gillespie writes in a personal capacity, with apologies to our columnist Gregor Steele.

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