"COME back nursery vouchers - all is forgiven!" It's true - such mutterings are current among the parents of pre-schoolers.
Too late of course. Labour's Son-of-Voucher is here and assiduously spreading confusion. Torn up and discarded is the simple and equitable concept of a national scheme: the same cheque for every four-year-old in the land. Now matters depend entirely on where you live and the vagaries of your council.
Despite the rhetoric, Scottish Old Labour remains massively suspicious of the private sector. Nor does it trust parents to choose or spend wisely. The same monies, Pounds 1,140 a child, are now being routed through the councils. Hands up those parents who have so far seen a penny of it. Naturally councils have carte blanche to cream off what they like for new central staffing and services which they decide parents need. No one appears to have asked parents in East Renfrewshire whether they choose to lose Pounds 446 of the money Donald Dewar, the Scottish secretary, promised them individually, so that their council can provide bilingual and psychological services.
Or parents in other council areas where deductions of hundreds of pounds are syphoned off for "administration, training and quality assurance". It is a Scottish disgrace that by thus reducing the parental allocation in the name of quality assurance, there is correspondingly less available for parents to spend in the independent nurseries, many of whom are starting to suspect that some in partnerships are more equal than others.
It is also a crying disgrace that only one council recognises the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association's own Quality Assurance Standard, devised by Glasgow University and now being piloted by the Office for Standards in Education in England.
What about a little common sense? SINA has a quality product which should be negotiated with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and thereafter automatically accepted by councils. Independent nurseries are currently grossly over-inspected. Four audits (by the Scottish Office, social work and education departments and SINA for members) for one tiny nursery seem wasteful and over the top.
The adult:child ratio demanded of the independents by social work departments is 1:5. The ratio is 1:10 in education department nurseries - not subject to the Children Act and social work inspection (but shouldn't they be if they wish to provide "wraparound" childcare?) Currently every playgroup seeking council "partnership" approval is scrabbling for a part-time teacher (the cost of which will be passed on to parents). Why? Are nurseries expected to teach reading?
Is the argument that nursery nurses are only good for wiping faces and tying apron strings? And that they and parent helpers should not be trusted with stories and reading readiness activities? Does every local authority social work children's centre now provide a trained teacher? Will there be teachers in the mum's and toddler's groups next?
Hold on. Haven't we just heard that nursery nurses are widely acclaimed as valued colleagues in the P1P2 classroom, where several councils are experimenting with new ways of overcoming early deprivation? So is their training inadequate for earlier years?
And what of the daft rule that nurseries must have eight pre-schoolers on the books to be eligible for council partnership funding? Don't parents have the right to choose a nursery with a smaller number of pre-schoolers if they prefer that environment?
As with national targets, the implementation of the Government's aims for pre-five provider partnerships is too important to be left to local unpredictability and the chancy patchwork of the town hall lottery. Helen Liddell please note.