Further evidence of Government alertness to rural sensitivities emerged this week with news of an extra pound;4 million to plug pre-school gaps in rural areas in 24 education authorities.
The money comes hard on the heels of the Education Minister's intervention in village school closures (overleaf). It is part of an additional pound;9 million for nursery education announced by the Secretary of State last December, and is for 1998-99 only.
Highland receives the lion's share of pound;551,671, while Inverclyde and Renfrewshire each get pound;10,331. The allocations can be spent on creating extra places, funding peripatetic teachers, and providing transport.
Jack Findlay, Highland's head of school and curriculum development, welcomed the dedicated rural cash as "a good start", but said universal coverage of four-year- olds depended on finding providers. There are 350 children in the pre-school year without a place at present, a number spread over 82 primary school areas.
"In some of these areas there are no playgroups," Mr Findlay said, "or the groups are so small that they cannot be bothered with all the bureaucracy involved in registration and recognition, or there is no room in the local school."
Mr Findlay did not believe the extra rural grant would help to overcome transport problems. "You cannot provide transport for some parents and not for others," he said.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister who revealed details of the new pre-five funding regime at Woodside Nursery in Glasgow on Tuesday, warned councils that the cash was to be used to add to existing provision, not to duplicate or replicate the work of playgroups or private nurseries.
The private sector is concerned that, by putting the authorities in the driving seat and allowing them to control the purse-strings, its centres could find themselves driven out of business.
The Government's initiative, replacing nursery vouchers for 61,000 children in their pre-school year from August, will hand pound;75.6 million to education authorities in the 1998-99 financial year (of which pound;50.6m will be available in the first two terms of the next school year, the first tranche being for the last months of the voucher scheme).
Councils will buy places from the private and voluntary sectors where they cannot make the provision themselves, at a cost of between pound;850 and pound;1,140 per child for five half-day places each week. Mr Wilson made clear again this week that he expected to see evidence of such a partnership at work. He announced there would be a review of progress in the autumn.
Patricia McGinty, vice-convener in charge of strategy for the Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association (SINA), welcomed the review but remained sceptical about whether authorities would take partnership seriously.
"The fact that the minister is only recommending partnership means that he will not be able to ensure universal provision for four-year-olds because local authorities cannot offer an integrated package of daycare and education, which many working families need," Mrs McGinty said.
But the Scottish Office letter to local authorities makes it clear that "the Government is also committed to developing integrated early years' services, co-ordinating education and daycare, for those young children whose parents need services over extended hours". A national childcare strategy would help parents to manage working and family life.
SINA, which represents 120 nurseries catering for 15,000 children, believes that there must be "a measure of coercion on local authorities to take note of parents' wishes".
The Scottish Pre-School Play Association, whose member playgroups are attended by around a third of Scotland's 130,000 three- and four-year-olds, has warned that the Government's target of a free part-time place for every child in the pre-school year by this winter is in jeopardy because councils are severely cutting back on their funding to voluntary organisations.
The local authorities and the Educational Institute of Scotland, however, have given the Government's announcement enthusiastic endorsement. The EIS believes local authority provision is the best bet for parents and cautioned against the involvement of private organisations intent on "making a quick profit".
But Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, questioned whether pre-school children would receive a quality education from local authorities when budget cuts were forcing councils to close schools, sack teachers, and reduce spending on books and equipment.
PRIVATE SECTOR FEARS CHANGES
Private nurseries' worries have been highlighted in Scottish Borders where the education committee last week decided not to enter into any contracts with the private sector because the council has enough nursery places of its own. In the current year, 12 private nurseries have 9 per cent of the pre-school children who are paid for through vouchers.
Seonaid Hamilton, who chairs the new Borders Independent Nurseries representing 18 centres, said her members would not know until the summer whether they would survive. She owns Castlegate Nursery in Kelso, and has already had to give four nursery nurses notice to quit in June.
The school caters for 40 children of whom 24 are in their pre-school year. Parents of four-year-olds have been told they will not be funded to enrol their children if they opt for private education.
"The council were happy to make use of us when they could not provide the places", said Mrs Hamilton. "Now they are happy to see us go to the wall."