Capital says 'Scrap it'

4th April 1997 at 01:00

A TES survey on the Government's nursery scheme for four-year-olds reveals widespread dissatisfactio.

Two Conservative education authorities in London have created extra places for four-year-olds thanks to the voucher scheme. But 13 other London boroughs reported that the scheme had failed to increase provision by a single place.

Tory-controlled Bromley said there was a small expansion of nursery classes, but 700 four-year-olds in the borough would not have a nursery place by April 1, the date the voucher scheme was implemented nationwide.

Westminster, which is also Conservative-controlled, said 250 places for four-year-olds would be created because the Government had allowed the LEA to borrow more money for capital expenditure.

However, the LEA's client services manager, Peter Everett, said Westminster was intending to provide these extra places anyway. The only difference was that the money for them was now coming from the Government.

Westminster was one of four LEAs in the nursery voucher pilot. The Government, however, has made it clear that capital money will not be available for LEAs in phase two of the scheme - a decision that the House of Commons Education and Employment Committee criticised in its nursery voucher report published on March 12.

Most London LEAs wanted the voucher scheme scrapped (eight) or replaced (three). The remaining five of the 16 London LEAs who replied to the questionnaire preferred not to comment (three), were willing to co-operate with any scheme aimed at creating places (Westminster) or wanted the scheme revised (Wandsworth).

Eight LEAs have places for all their four-year-olds this year and seven do not have enough. A significant number are planning to provide places for all their four-year-olds by 1998 or later. Most places, however, are in reception classes.

But early-years experts will be disappointed to hear that many of the children will be going into primary school reception classes. Nursery practitioners have long criticised this trend because many schools do not have the staff or resources to educate very young children in large classes.

Haringey, for example, has a total of 1,050 four-year-olds in nursery schools or classes and 1,800 in reception classes.

In Tower Hamlets, 1,900 four-year-olds (67 per cent) are in reception classes and 918 (32 per cent) in nursery schools or classes. But Hillingdon has 3,120 four-year-olds in nursery schools or classes and none in reception classes.

A question on parental understanding of the scheme brought a mixed response. Many LEAs have produced leaflets and held meetings for headteachers and secretaries on the scheme and have had to work hard to explain to parents what the new initiative means.

Enfield, for example, reported these questions and comments from parents: "Can I buy extra lessons or tuition with them?" "Can I cash them?" "I want to pay for RE lessons with them," and "I don't need them as my child's already in school."

Six LEAs were critical of the nursery inspection arrangements. The criticisms varied. Kensington and Chelsea said there was a lack of consistency between inspectors; Haringey deplored one person conducting an inspection in one day; and Newham was unhappy about the "marginalisation of three-year-olds" and the fact that the duration of the inspection was not linked to the number of four-year-olds.

Despite numerous reports in the past six months about increasing numbers of primary schools changing their admission polices to accept four-year-olds, 15 of the 16 LEAs said no changes had been made to admissions.

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