Four-year-olds in sparsely populated areas of the Highlands are set to be given nursery places alongside primary pupils under a plan to extend provision after the general election. Primaries would retain 80 per cent of the voucher value under the current scheme and the expansion would probably proceed under Labour's alternative.
The decision by Highland Council's under-eights committee follows criticism last week by a Commons Select Committee that primary schools in England are "crowding out" private and voluntary nurseries in a bid to cash in on the vouchers. More parents south of the border have placed their children in reception classes, in effect lowering the age of entry to formal schooling by a term or more.
In contrast, Highland's move is viewed as a cost-effective and practical way of extending nursery provision in rural areas with low numbers of pre-school children. The council has ruled out separate nurseries where there are fewer than 10 children and will continue to work closely with playgroups, its preferred option in many small communities. A similar primary scheme is being piloted in Argyll.
Allan Gilchrist, Highland's director of education, admitted there would be some "unusual" arrangements because of local circumstances. In parts of Sutherland, difficulties in finding accommodation and staff would leave the council with little option but to use infant classes for new nursery provision. Nursery assistants were likely to work with the class teacher.
Andrew Stewart, the Educational Institute of Scotland's local secretary, said the union recognised the council's difficulties but cautioned that quality provision could be sacrificed if the professional input of teachers was cut back. "If nursery education is to be available, then it should be a properly trained nursery teacher in charge. We would not like to see this as the thin end of the wedge, running classes without trained teachers," Mr Stewart said. He sympathised with the council which had to bid for places in the market-led voucher system. If it did not money would be transferred elsewhere.
The council is to spend up to Pounds 250,000 setting up new nursery provision for an August start. Each new unit will cost on average Pounds 3,500 for equipment and Pounds 4,000 for refurbishment. Councillors ruled out charging parents because of the extra bureaucracy involved.
The under-eights committee was told the voucher scheme barely covers the running costs of nursery classes with between 20 and 40 children.