The London borough of Wandsworth, one of four authorities currently piloting the Government's nursery vouchers, plans to extend the scheme to cover excluded and disaffected secondary school pupils.
"Pupils who would otherwise go to a pupil referral unit would have a voucher attached to them, in an effort for us to find some new providers," said an official. The new providers might be either private organisations, charitable trusts or "others yet to emerge", the spokesman added.
"It might even be former teachers who feel they've got a particular skill to offer, if freed from the constraints of the system." He described the council's vision of private provision as "more outward bound than boot camp".
One of the authority's two pupil referral units is to close shortly, after a decision last week by the education committee. The proposals are causing concern among teachers already worried about high exclusion rates in a borough where seven out of 10 secondary schools are grant-maintained.
Julia Alterman, secretary of Wandsworth National Union of Teachers' branch, said: "We would want a range of alternative provision to mainstream schooling for children who can't cope for one reason or another. With help and individual attention, children can get back on the rails. But these proposals are about throwing them to the lions."
Wandsworth admits that there may be difficulties in regulating private provision, but denied that parents would be given the voucher to "spend" as they saw fit. The authority would decide in conjunction with the parents how the voucher was spent.
Teachers fear that re-organisation of the support services in the borough is geared more to saving money than better meeting children's needs.
They are angry at the education department's suggestion that the existence of pupil referral units is a disincentive for schools to hold on to difficult pupils.
"It is an insult to the endless time and energy secondary teachers put into trying to help disruptive pupils survive in the mainstream," said Julia Alterman.
But the Wandsworth official described vouchers as "flavour of the month" in the borough. "There is a will to look for ways they can be used to open up provision in other areas," he said. "Working out how to monitor the quality of that provision may slow us down, but it won't stop the thinking."