East Renfrewshire Council became the first in Scotland this week to fuse the Government's pre-five voucher scheme with its own plans. "It is entirely a pragmatic decision," Jim Fletcher, education convener of the LabourLiberal Democrat council, said. Only 47 per cent of children currently have a local authority pre-school place.
Owen Taylor, the council's leader, went out of his way at a press briefing on Monday to express opposition to the principle of vouchers. "The free market is where you sell livestock," Mr Taylor declared. But he described the expansion of the pre-fives service as "our greatest priority".
A "First Steps" plan envisages a three-year programme to provide a place for every three-year-old and four-year-old by 1999. Work began on Monday to erect two purpose-built pre-five units at Netherlee and Thornliebank primaries, providing 100 places. The creation of 150 places at another five schools and centres by August is largely dependent on Scottish Office acceptance of the council's voucher scheme application.
The initial cost of the 250 places is pound;440,514 and vouchers will recoup pound;281,600 of that.
East Renfrewshire, which combines the prosperous Eastwood and less favoured Barrhead districts, is deliberately targeting its pre-fives programme as a "flagship policy" to demonstrate what Mr Taylor described as "equal-handedness" to all areas of the council.
The ruling coalition, whose 10 councillors are balanced against 10 for the Conservatives and a "residents' association" member, will inherit a pattern of nursery schooling from Strathclyde Region which has favoured disadvantaged areas.
The council's second and third waves of expansion therefore envisage a 180-place nursery school in prosperous Newton Mearns and a non-denominational primary in the same suburb which will have a unit for 100 pre-five places. Playgroups provide the only council service at present.
Playgroups and private nurseries will enter a formal partnership with the council, and Renfrewshire Enterprise will provide staff training. Eleanor Currie, the council's director of education, stressed that the council would reserve the right to withdraw from any partnership "if acceptable curricular standards are not subsequently met by any of the providers".
So far, however, only two of the five private nurseries in East Renfrewshire have declared their intention to register.
Admissions policies will give priority to child protection cases, children with special educational needs, those who would otherwise go into care, and other discretionary admissions on social grounds. Four-year-olds with vouchers will come fifth in the peckings.
East Renfrewshire hopes to avoid the "sterile" pre-five battles which engulfed Strathclyde over the roles of teaching and non-teaching staff. Mrs Currie pledged that five of the 16 posts created during the first phase of the programme would go to teachers.
The Scottish Office expects to announce the successful applicants for the pound;3 million pilot scheme in mid-March. Borders, the Western Isles, North Ayrshire and Argyll are believed to be the only other councils to have submitted bids.