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Parents throw away forms for vouchers

Norfolk parents whose children are in a state school or nursery have thrown away their voucher application forms because they think they do not need them.

In the London borough of Wandsworth, one parent asked whether she could spend her Pounds 1,100 voucher on school uniforms. And in Westminster, parents are refusing to fill in their application forms until the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill completes its passage through Parliament, according to the National Campaign for Nursery Education.

But a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment denied the controversial nursery voucher scheme was in disarray even before the first phase had begun.

She said that parents who had discarded their voucher forms could apply for new ones. Leaflets had been distributed to schools and the Government had launched a media campaign, but it was inevitable that some parents would not understand, she said.

Helen Banks, chair of Norfolk's primary headteachers' association, is the head of Clover Hill first school, and campaigns against the voucher scheme. She said she had spoken to at least 30 heads in the county who knew parents who had thrown away their application forms because their children had a free nursery place.

Under the scheme, all parents of four-year-olds have to apply, even if they already have a free place. When they receive the Pounds 1,100 voucher, they must then decide whether to spend it at a state, private or voluntary nursery.

The first phase of the scheme starts in April in Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea, as well as Norfolk.

Helen Banks also claims that one parent who rang up the helpline run by the voucher agency, Capita, was given incorrect information. When the parent, who has a four-year-old in a reception class, asked whether she needed an application form, she was wrongly told she did not.

Brenda Swaddle, headteacher of Eastwood nursery school in Wandsworth, also reported confusion among some parents. One asked whether the voucher could be spent on school uniform.

The National Campaign for Nursery Education is also receiving reports of voucher applications being sent to wrong addresses because of house moves. Margaret Lally, the campaign's chair, said forms could end up in the wrong hands, leaving potential for fraud.

Meanwhile, it emerged this week that LEAs will be able to administer vouchers within their existing funding systems, undermining the scheme's original aim.

LEAs are expected to be providers of nursery places in competition with private nurseries. Schools receive the vouchers from parents, and then redeem them from Capita. Proponents of vouchers see them as a way of taking education out of the hands of local authorities.

Jonathan Towns, project manager for vouchers in Norfolk, said that DFEE officials had become convinced that a concession was needed to avoid disruption.

The Government has reluctantly allowed Norfolk to operate by giving schools money based upon the expected rolls of four-year-olds. The authority then redeems this money from Capita and is able to pool the money into a pot for under-fives' provision. This cuts the direct link between vouchers and the schools. If schools increase the number of four-year-olds, they will get extra money in line with present LMS rules.

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