Group 4 aims to take no nursery prisoners

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Group 4, the security firm awarded the Pounds 14 million contract to supervise the inspection of more than 16,000 nurseries and playgroups, is determined to get it right first time.

The company, chosen this week by the Office for Standards in Education, wants to avoid a repeat of the public relations disaster it suffered when it won control of the privatised prison service - one prisoner escaped dressed in drag and a Group 4 officer mistook Preston museum for the town's court.

Starting next month it will be responsible for awarding inspection contracts and deploying OFSTED-approved teams to private and voluntary-sector organisations accepting vouchers. The findings will be returned to Group 4 for collation before being passed to OFSTED.

OFSTED chose Group 4 in preference to rival bidders saying it "represented the best value for money in terms of quality, risk, price, reliability and practicality". The company beat off five rivals, including fellow security firm Securicor.

Group 4 insists it can do the job even though it has no experience in educational management. It has diversified from its main business, holding a contract for training Benefits Agency staff.

The company is expecting to arrange 700 inspections by the end of this year and is predicting that all the pilot scheme nurseries will be visited within a year of them accepting their first voucher.

Currently nurseries in the four pilot authorities "self-certify" - supplying basic information and promising to meet the conditions of the voucher scheme.

There are concerns about Group 4's ability to find enough suitable inspectors - the shortage of personnel was brought into focus this week after OFSTED revealed it had failed to meet its own primary-school goals. However, Group 4 says it has had a large number of enquiries from people "ready, willing and able".

Once the system is in full swing, voucher cash will be conditional on approval from inspectors.

Teachers will be looking out for any slip-ups - the profession generally considers vouchers to be bureaucratic and not the way to increase the number of nursery places for four-year-olds.

Teachers' unions want clear guidelines on the deployment of inspection teams. Many believe that Group 4 will struggle to match the teams (which are likely to come from local authorities and universities) with appropriate schools.

"It's not just a case of logistics, it's a case of making decisions which impact on the quality of inspections," said a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers.

The voucher scheme is due to be implemented throughout England next April. First inspections organised by Group 4 are scheduled to start at the end of next month in Norfolk and the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster where trials have been conducted this year.

Critics believe the inspectors will be lenient on nurseries and playgroups so that the problem-ridden voucher scheme can be implemented as quickly as possible.

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