Department for Education officials have been struggling to overcome legal and financial difficulties preventing grant-maintained primary schools from adding nursery classes.
Education Secretary Gillian Shephard this week assured GM heads who have been waiting for up to two years to hear if they can take under-fives that their applications would be processed as soon as possible. She told a GM conference in London that she hoped to be able to decide on some proposals "ahead of the general expansion".
Seventeen GM primaries have applications for a change of character allowing them to add nursery classes languishing on the Secretary of State's desk. The first, Wold Newton in Humberside, submitted its proposals in January 1993. No GM primary has yet been given a "yes" answer, although a few have been rejected.
"At this time last year we were told we would be told last spring, then it was early summer, then late summer," said Colin Gould, head of Alder Coppice school in Dudley, which applied in November 1993. "It makes planning very hard. "
Before approving any applications the Government has to decide how the nursery places are to be funded, which raises legal as well as financial questions. It might not be possible simply to take money for non-statutory provision out of LEA budgets - a problem highlighted by Mrs Shephard's letter to MPs last week urging them to question the extent to which councils are expanding non-statutory services, such as nursery education. "It would be desperately embarrassing for them to lose a court case," said Martin Rogers of Local Schools Information, the opt-out advisory body. The situation also raises further questions about the Government's ability to fulfil John Major's commitment to expand pre-school provision.
However, the Government is conscious of the need to be even-handed. Mrs Shephard told the conference that GM schools would play an important part in the expansion, and agreed that "the prospect of adding nurseries at GM schools would be a major incentive for primary schools to become grant-maintained. "
John Wallace, head of Wold Newton, said GM schools wanted to compete with local authority primaries, which have been able to add nurseries. But he insisted he was not cross about the delay. "There are so many good things that have come out of GM for us."
Last September Mrs Shephard told GM schools decisions about their nursery proposals could not be made until the task force on under-fives education had reported. However, that plan seems to have been modified. "GM schools don't want to confuse the two issues," said Mr Wallace. "We don't want the extension of primary education to four-year-olds. That's not nursery education."