Everyone agrees that something must be done for the under-fives, but are John Major's vouchers the way forward? Stephanie Northen talked to two providers of nursery education - one in the private sector, and one with 40 years' public service.
Kate Eddolls and Brian Worthy are unlikely to have met. If they ever did it is unlikely they would agree. For Kate is the founder of Jolly Tots, a private nursery chain based in the South-east, and Brian is the county education officer of Cleveland, set to be the first local authority to guarantee free state nursery education to all its four-year-olds.
Kate Eddolls is in favour of the Government's scheme, confirmed last weekend by John Major, to give parents of four-year-olds vouchers with a cash value to exchange for nursery services. Brian Worthy is, at best, a voucher-sceptic.
Kate is a successful businesswoman who set up her first nursery in 1989, expanding the operation in 1992 with the help of a Government scheme that guaranteed the loan she took out to cover her capital costs. Now she runs three nurseries, with a fourth in the pipeline, and two play schemes, employing a total of 30 people.
She aims to satisfy the needs of working parents. Her nurseries are open 7.30am to 6pm and, she says, the staff of nursery nurses offer the mix of care and education that parents want. She supports vouchers because "they're good for business and they give parents choice".
"We were worried," she says, "that maybe all the money would have gone to playgroups or to schools which might have put us out of business and would not suit working parents."
Kate, who is also the Surrey representative of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, stresses that vouchers were "ultimately the only option because the Government can't fork out to set up day nurseries all over the country". She reels off the figures: "It costs Pounds 250,000 to design and build. Pounds 30,000 to equip and Pounds 60,000 to get you through the first six months while you build up numbers. It is naive to think the Government can come up with that kind of money."
But money is not the only problem, according to Kate. Remember NIMBY - Not in My Back Yard? Well, apparently the NIMBY factor operates against nurseries. Kate says: "People don't want them. Children play, they make noise and then there are the cars that ferry them to and fro. It would be easier to apply to set up a gypsy camp than a Jolly Tots nursery."
Assuming she does get the go-ahead for her new nursery, how much will it cost parents to send their child there? "About Pounds 100 a week, or Pounds 5,000 a year." And what does that mean for lower-income families who receive a voucher worth, say Pounds 1,000, from the Government. "Well, it's a start," says Kate. "Look, I've had meetings with the Labour party and the Tories, both looking for cheap quality options. The answer is that there aren't any."
On that point maybe, just maybe, she and Brian Worthy of Cleveland would agree.
Next March Cleveland will be split into four unitary authorities and Brian will say goodbye after 40 years' service. In the same month, though, the authority aims to have 10,000 half-day nursery education places to cover all its four and some of its three-and-a-half-year-olds - it currently has 9,500. And it will be nursery education, not child-minding, Brian Worthy stresses. There will be a teacher and an auxiliary for every group of 26 children.
So why and how has Cleveland managed to achieve this when some local authorities barely reach a quarter of their under-fives?
The reasons are partly historic, says Brian. When Cleveland was set up in 1974 it inherited good nursery provision from two of its constituent parts - Teesside and Hartlepool. The new authority continued their policy of investing in the under fives in its other two areas which were originally parts of Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire.
Brian says that throughout the 20 years of Cleveland's existence there has always been all-party support for nursery education, even when the traditionally socialist authority was briefly under Tory control.
As nursery education has been such a priority, the money has been found from capital allocations and whenever Cleveland built a primary school it built a nursery as well.
He has doubts about John Major's vouchers. "For one thing I don't believe it will be new money and anyone who does probably also believes the streets of London are paved with gold - which they weren't the last time I visited. "
He expects that vouchers will be piloted "probably in one or two marginal Tory seats" but doesn't expect that his authority will benefit. "How can we, we've done it and we're paying for it already. There's a degree of inequity there. "
Does he think vouchers could actually damage what Cleveland has achieved? "Well the plant is there, the money is there, that must be irreversible, mustn't it?"