THE Prime Minister has been drawn into the row between the local authorities and other providers of pre-school education.
Privately run schools and playgroups are protesting that councils, which hold the purse-strings, are refusing to place three and four-year-olds despite constant Government demands that they should act in partnership.
The stand-off now looks like claiming its first casualties as the Scottish Pre-school Play Association warns it will have to dismiss 30 core staff because it is not winning a fair share of the Government's new places.
Martha Simpson, the association's chief executive, raised the problem with Tony Blair at the Prime Minister's public meeting in Carluke last week. The Prime Minister said there ought to be room for all providers in meeting the Government's pre-school targets and promised that he would look into the matter.
The Scottish Office named and shamed six authorities in January which it said had failed to strike partnership agreements. They were Dundee, Midlothian, West Lothian, West Dunbartonshire, East Ayrshire and Falkirk.
Most claim they have enough places of their own to educate all four-year-olds. But Government plans to offer a nursery place for all three-year-olds by 2002 will almost certainly highlight shortages in council provision.
Patricia McGinty, strategy vice-convener for the Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association, said authorities were ignoring the Government's "best value" regime which seeks value for money from council spending.
Mrs McGinty cites huge variations in prices being paid for outside places. The Government grant is pound;1,140 for each pre-school child, rising to pound;1,175 next session.
Authorities are recommended not to buy pre-school places for less than pound;850 (pound;880 next year). Yet East Renfrewshire's rate is pound;694. At the other extreme, the Western Isles, which relies heavily on other providers, pays pound;1,120 which will rise to pound;1,140 next session.
Ian Fraser, head of pre-school services in East Renfrewshire, said payments to three privately run nurseries and six playgroups would be raised to the minimum of pound;880 next session. Mr Fraser insists the remaining pound;295 is needed to fund council monitoring of pre-school quality, provide support from psychological and other council staff, run staff training for the other sectors and follow up HMI reports. East Renfrewshire also employs a teacher to work with independent providers.
Mrs McGinty said centres which had a quality kitemark from their professional association should be trusted to get on with the job and be fully funded.
John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire, said the council had places for all four-year-olds and for 40 per cent of three-year-olds. "We want to expand on that position and are currently in the midst of public consultations on a childcare strategy," Mr Mulgrew said. "The position of the private sector will be given serious consideration."
Marie Maciver Clark, convener of SINA in central Scotland, said no headway had been made in establishing a partnership in Falkirk. Yet neighbouring Clackmannan retains only pound;95 from the Government's pound;1,140 grant. The Alloa-based council even seconded a head to help three independent nurseries through an inspection and allowed council workmen to carry out repairs.
The Scottish Office hopes to publish a review of partnerships in the summer.