Local education authorities will not be able to meet Labour's aim of high quality nursery places for all simply by putting all four-year-olds in reception classes, the Government has warned.
The Early Years Forum, which each authority will set up (to develop pre-school plans once vouchers are scrapped) will have to include the private and voluntary sectors, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has stressed. A letter from the department to LEAs and other providers says: "Even in areas where the maintained sector has the capacity to offer all children aged four a place, the potential exists (and should be exploited) for collaboration and co-operation between providers."
"A partnership approach," the letter goes on, "can cater for the needs of those children for whom an informal setting is more appropriate before compulsory school age, or for children whose parents' employment commitments mean they have a need for care beyond school hours."
The Government also wants plans for early-years provision to "take account of parental choice, perhaps by offering more places than there are potential children".
Places for four-year-olds in primary schools will have to suit their needs, the department's letter makes plain: "LEAs are not expected to expand reception classes to provide for places for young four-year-olds unless the educational needs of those children are specifically addressed," it says.
Labour's plan to replace the Conservatives' nursery voucher scheme, which was itself introduced nationwide only last month, falls into two stages: an interim stage up to April 1998 and a fully-fledged phase after that date, when each authority should be implementing its own early-years development plan.
The aim is to provide a good quality place (at least 2.5 hours a day, five days a week) free of charge for all four-year-olds whose parents want it, and to set targets to extend that entitlement to three-year-olds "over time".
Ministers are also inviting proposals for a pilot programme of 25 "early excellence centres" which will provide education, childcare and family services under one roof. They hope to make a start on these by next April.
All resources now available for the voucher scheme - Pounds 674 million this year - will be available for the new programme.
To avoid disrupting children's education, the Government will make no change to current voucher arrangements before the summer holidays. But from the start of the autumn term, vouchers will no longer be used.
What happens then will depend on how well advanced a local authority's plans are. LEAs that can submit satisfactory plans for an "interim early-years development plan" by July 1 will be able to offer free, part-time places in either the local authority, private or voluntary sectors for the two terms up to April 1998. They will receive funding from the Government at the rate of Pounds 336 per child per term (the same amount as parents are now given through a voucher) and can pass that sum on to private or voluntary providers in grants.
LEAs will be able to pass on less than that sum where the provision costs less - in the case of playgroups, for instance - but will then have to spend the difference on the education of four-year-olds in the private and voluntary sectors. And parents will be able to top up the amount where the sum does not cover the full cost of provision.
Where education authorities tell the department by the middle of June that they cannot submit an interim plan, commitments to four-year-olds under the current scheme will be honoured. Parents whose children have places in the private or voluntary sector will be able to apply to the DFEE for a "certificate" they can use until April 1998 - to all intents and purposes a voucher, with five parts each exchangeable for a session of at least 2. 5 hours. Parents will be free to top up the value of the "certificate".
From April 1998, all schemes will be run by local education authorities, under development plans drawn up by each authority's early-years forum and approved by the Government. There will be no more "certificates": any places offered will be free. Only providers included in the plan will be able to offer places, which may mean that some children in private or voluntary places have to move when funding is withdrawn.
Where places combine education and daycare, parents may be asked to pay the cost of the daycare. And the department's letter adds, rather mysteriously: "Parents should not be required to pay additional fees for education, but can opt to do so" - presumably where they want more than 2.5 hours of education per day.
The Government has not yet decided on the future of the controversial inspection system set up to validate nurseries wishing to accept vouchers. Schools minister Estelle Morris said Labour wants to rationalise the inspection system, so that private and state nurseries are covered by the same regime.