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Nursery vouchers are a 'nightmare'

Minister admits parents are confused. As the first nursery vouchers were sent to parents this week, primary and nursery heads have called the scheme an "administrative nightmare".

Robin Squire, the schools minister, who posed by the printing presses producing the first vouchers, was forced to admit that parents were confused and that the vouchers would not guarantee four-year-olds a nursery place.

While almost a third of those parents eligible for vouchers in the four pilot education authorities, had so far failed to apply, they still had plenty of time, he said. "As soon as they see the voucher they will realise how simple it is to use."

Parents who have thrown away the application forms will be able to telephone a helpline and receive another one. Many have not realised that even if their four-year-old already has a nursery place they still need a voucher.

The minister said the Department for Education and Employment's publicity campaign, which has cost Pounds 960,000 to date, will continue with press and poster advertising and a 12-page information booklet.

The scheme which starts in April in the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and the county of Norfolk is to be extended nationwide the following year.

However, the local authorities have won a concession from the Government; they will be able to choose how they distribute the money redeemed from vouchers in their own schools, thus breaking the original plan of a direct link between the child and the voucher.

In Kensington and Chelsea, schools in the less prosperous north of the borough are concerned they will bear the administrative brunt of the exercise. Jane Salmon, the administrator of Bevington School, attended a course this week on how the vouchers will work. So far she has had few enquiries and suspects many of her parents are not even aware of the scheme.

Pat Clark, head of Avondale Park primary school, said: "With many of our parents, particularly those who do not speak good English, it is no good just giving them the helpline number."

At Holland Park nursery school where the fees are Pounds 675 a term, Sybil Pagnamenta, the head, is not publicising the scheme. She said: "The Pounds 1,100 will just be a gift to some of these parents - and that is not the way it should be. This money is coming out of the borough's education budget."

Another private nursery head preferred to remain anonymous because she felt the scheme was politically sensitive. She thought most of her parents knew about the vouchers. So far she has not had any enquiries from new people, but expects to benefit from the scheme which will give parents a Pounds 1,100 per year contribution to the Pounds 630-a-term fees.

"Private and state-sector primaries in this area have worked well together, but the fact that money is being siphoned off to the independent sector could cause friction," she said.

A local authority head, who also asked not to be named, said: "People here are suspicious because while vouchers may provide more places they cannot guarantee provision of a good quality curriculum. " The Labour party denounced the scheme as an expensive, bureaucratic paper chase. Estelle Morris MP said: "Three of the four authorities are worried they cannot guarantee a place in return for a voucher. This makes the voucher not worth the paper it is printed on."

She said the legislation, which ends its committee stage in the House of Commons next week, paves the way for a two-tier inspection system, with maintained schools being inspected under one set of regulations and private nurseries under new and laxer, provisions. She is also concerned places for three-year-olds will be at risk.

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