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Nursery bar on carless families

The Government's immediate target of universal nursery education for four-year-olds from August next year could be difficult to achieve in rural areas if the experience of 11 Wigtownshire children proves typical.

Children from the remote Kirkcowan area, 20 miles from Stranraer and 57 miles from Dumfries, will be unable to take up a nursery place next session because of lack of either private or public transport. The Education Minister promised last week to monitor gaps in the pre-school system as the Government moves to expand it.

Dumfries and Galloway, like other councils, says it cannot afford to subsidise transport for what is not a statutory service. It estimates that bussing the 11 children to Wigtown would cost Pounds 190 a week.

Fraser Sanderson, head of primary education, admits the council could lose income next session, after which the pre-school voucher system is to be axed. "We could not contemplate the cost of subsidising transport since such provision in the Kirkcowan area would create insupportable demands elsewhere, " Mr Sanderson said. The position was regrettable.

The council has just 35 nursery classes to cover 116 primary school catchment areas, and only 10 playgroups and private centres have registered to provide a service. Mr Sanderson says demand for transport would be "considerable".

John Marshall, the local councillor who has been campaigning on behalf of the parents, says the Kirkcowan area is particularly deprived and families either have no car or unsuitable vehicles. There is no private provision and mother and toddler groups are not eligible for voucher income.

Jack Findlay, head of the school service in Highland, one of four councils to have piloted vouchers, said: "Transport to nurseries is critical for many parents but there is no way the local authority can fund it." Dumfries and Galloway wants the Scottish Office to give added help to rural areas.

Wilma Lawn, acting principal officer for the early years in Argyll, which also took part in piloting vouchers, said she could not rule out transport problems in the future although none had emerged so far.

North Ayrshire, another pilot area, has adopted a novel approach to the rural challenge on Arran where the nursery nurse does the travelling rather than the pupils. She visits 11 pre-school children at three outlying primaries from her base at Corrie primary where there are another eight children. But Lesley Rowson, head of pre-five services, said this was a costly option which would not suit councils with large rural hinterlands.

Mr Findlay supports the call for extra cash in rural areas to allow the council sector to provide nursery education. The use of primary schools was not always possible because many are full or would be too costly to adapt. He said voucher income was also insufficient to run any nursery with fewer than eight children. Even that number would only allow a teacher to be involved for an unsatisfactory one half-day session a week.

Latest Scottish Office figures show the voucher scheme is still some way from achieving universal provision: 87 per cent of the 61,444 eligible parents have returned their forms and claimed vouchers. But this could disguise a further shortfall if parents cannot cash their vouchers for lack of nursery places.

Although the vast majority of customers have applied, provision in many places is likely to be patchy at least in the coming session. Highland will be able to double the number of council nurseries to 60, but there are over 190 primary school catchment areas. And, while 37 playgroups have registered to take part in the voucher scheme, they represent a small proportion of the 220 groups in Highland.

The position in Argyll also reveals gaps as 25 council nurseries and 37 others cover an area served by just under 90 primary schools.

Mr Sanderson says Dumfries and Galloway is already holding talks with the Scottish Pre-School Play Association to see whether it can support playgroups in areas where the council cannot run nursery classes.

Local councillor John Marshall and Wigtownshire residents with nowhere to go (caption for page 3 turn).

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