The Government is more concerned with market forces than providing a quality service for the under-fives, according to Chris Clarke, leader of Somerset council.
The county has decided not to take part in the first phase of the nursery voucher scheme - a decision Mr Clarke believed had been vindicated after listening to a speech this week by Michael Richardson, the civil servant in charge of the under-fives task force.
Mr Richardson was speaking at a conference in Taunton held to discuss the implications of vouchers for a rural county such as Somerset.
Mr Clarke said: "There is a great deal about unleashing market forces rather than anything to do with quality education. The first children taking part will be living experiments and this is the worst time in children's lives to put them at risk from an untried scheme."
Nick Henwood, Somerset's chief education officer, told the conference that he had "some difficulty understanding what is proposed in the scheme, which seems to be emerging stage-by-stage".
His concern was echoed by many delegates - a mix of employers, councillors, parents, teachers and governors.
It is estimated Somerset will lose Pounds 4.7 million under the system, which it would only recover if parents continue to send their children to council schools.
Mr Richardson said the Government was keen to see what the response would be in rural areas and what local services were on offer. He believed the inclusion of rural Norfolk in the first phase would give some answers before the scheme is launched nationally in April 1997.
"We are looking at a completely new approach to funding this crucial area without any certainty as to how it is going to pan out. We can't guarantee availability (of private-sector places). It depends whether the market responds."
Vicky Hurst, director of the Quality in Diversity project, and lecturer in early childhood at Goldsmiths' College, London, referred to the problem of schools not knowing how many four-year-olds to expect until the April before the new school year. "I have grave reservations. How can anyone plan ahead when you don't know who is coming?" She had doubts whether the scheme would improve the nursery curriculum; whether it will encourage a coherent service; and whether staff training will be adequate.
She feared services would be geared to meeting a narrow set of criteria set by the Government. "The voucher scheme will be payment by results. Leaving things to market forces is suitable if you are selling a product, but not pre-school education."
Linda Raymonde-Parker, who runs the private Lemon Tree Nursery, said the Government should provide loans for training and capital works to ensure high standards in the private sector. She feared that otherwise there would be people "who see the vouchers as a licence to print money".