Brian Wilson has effectively created statutory nursery education for four-year-olds in a milestone decision. The Education Minister said yesterday (Thursday) that he was determined to achieve the target of a place for all children in their pre-school by next winter. Around Pounds 70 million released by axing vouchers will be ring-fenced to ensure councils do not spend it elsewhere.
Councils currently have a power, but not a duty, to provide nursery education and parents of 60,000 children will henceforth have an entitlement to the service even if it is not placed on a legal footing.
The announcement is also significant in reinforcing the trend for the Government to encroach on councils' traditional discretion over expenditure, to the delight of directors of education but not council chief executives. Earmarked cash has already been specified for school security, early intervention and exclusion.
A pre-school place for all four-year-olds would be "a stiff challenge" in some areas, Mr Wilson acknowledged. He has already expressed concern at gaps in provision, particularly in rural areas, which he expects to be filled by playgroups and private nurseries.
The Government is also taking a series of steps which the minister says are intended to assure quality. Around Pounds 1 million is being provided this year for additional staff training, which councils will have to share with the other two sectors. The Scottish Office has also commissioned three research projects worth Pounds 130,000 on pre-school costs and quality.
A pre-school curriculum framework is nearing completion and there is to be "an alignment of standards" across the public, private and voluntary sectors. The Inspectorate also intends publishing a three-yearly Standards and Quality report on pre-school education similar to those already issued for schools and further education.