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Pilot county insists on its right to bale out

Norfolk County Council may have provisionally agreed to take part in the Government's pilot nursery voucher scheme, but it has few illusions about the risks and challenges involved.

Unlike the other participants in the pilot - the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea - the authority has much to make up in terms of nursery places although it has had plans to increase the numbers of classes from the current 17 for some time.

Just over half of Norfolk's 9,250 four-year-olds are in its maintained schools and are admitted through a rising-fives programme. Nearly 1,150 children are in local authority nurseries. Education junior minister Robin Squire claims the nursery voucher scheme will stimulate competition between private and state providers. However, George Turner, the hung council's Labour education chairman, is adamant that if it causes chaos and frustrates parents the authority will pull out.

Norfolk is the only rural council to be involved in the pilot so far. It also contains the constituency of Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary.

And while parents in the three London boroughs will pay their Pounds 1, 100 vouchers to their nursery classes, in Norfolk they will be submitted direct to the county council which will then allocate the money under its local management scheme. This means the council will be more in control of how the money is spent.

Councillors are also hopeful that the Department for Education and Employment will relax restraints on its capital expenditure borrowing so it can build or adapt nursery classes to meet demand.

"I see it as a balancing act," said Mr Turner. "We are anxious to expand our nursery provision for three and four-year-olds as quickly as possible given the opportunity, but we are not going to encourage heads and governors to wreck the system we have by taking too young a child into an environment which is unsuitable for them just to getmoney from the Government's scheme."

Later this month the council will consult its headteachers and governors about a number of issues including the quality of facilities in reception classes.

Though conscious of the competition the authority will face from private providers, Mr Turner said it aimed to be well prepared to meet demand. "We think it is a mistake to put money into the private sector which should be in the public sector," he said. "I also suspect private providers are unlikely to put much money into nursery education until the outcome of the next general election is known.

"I believe some parents will be frustrated by the scheme because the Government has forced it through to meet a timetable for the next election. "

In sharp contrast, the impact of nursery vouchers in Tory-controlled Wandsworth is likely to be far less evident. A council spokesman said the authority had virtually reached "saturation level" in terms of pre-school places.

Its involvement was more of an exercise in administration and parental buying-power.

He said: "We have 3,300 four-year-olds who can claim the voucher - 2,200 of them are already in our schools or reception classes, and the rest are in the flourishing private sector. The introduction of vouchers will not make much difference."

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