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Nurseries warn of council squeeze

The private nursery sector has expressed concern that it could lose out in the post-voucher era if councils are given control over the purse-strings, as announced by the Education Minister last week.

Brian Wilson has put councils in the driving seat to make a nursery place available for all pupils in their pre-school year from next August. They would be required to enter into partnerships with the private and voluntary sector to fill any gaps, and Mr Wilson said he would review progress after a year.

The Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association, which represents 120 nurseries attended by 15,000 children, fears that councils will "pay lip-service to the rhetoric of partnership".

The association points to the decision by East Dunbartonshire to press ahead in opening 18 council nurseries without consulting parents or the private sector. The council's 614 morning and afternoon places now have to be topped up by three-year-olds, some of whom are charged.

"If that is what we mean by partnership, we will end up cancelling each other out," Patricia McGinty, SINA vice-convener in the west of Scotland, commented.

But Ian Mills, East Dunbartonshire's director of education, pledged to consult through the local early years forum. "We have no intention of squeezing them out," Mr Mills said, "but at the same time we have a high political priority to be the major provider."

A Scottish Office consultation paper due next month will include proposals for funding the new system. The private sector wants councils to contact parents before a child's fourth birthday with a list of all registered providers. Councils could then be invoiced for the children opting for the private sector.

Elizabeth Maginnis, the local authorities' education spokesperson, said the new responsibilities "will lie with the authorities and not in the market-place in the random hands of random choices by random parents".

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