Linda Blackburne reports as the party unveils its 'shadow circular' on the under-fives. New nursery vouchers will be scrapped next summer if Labour wins the election in the spring. Existing vouchers would be honoured and children would keep their nursery places until they started school full time. But no new vouchers would be issued beyond the first term. Under Government plans, vouchers are due to be issued nationally by April 1 for all four-year-olds, for use from the summer term.
Labour's plans for phasing out the voucher scheme are outlined in a "shadow circular" which was launched at the Pre-school Learning Alliance's annual conference in Scarborough last weekend.
David Blunkett, the first senior Labour education spokesman to speak at an Alliance conference, urged 700 early-years workers to start planning for the demise of the voucher scheme: "We place the integration of early-years services at the heart of our agenda ... In issuing our first shadow circular, we take this commitment one step further; proposing a genuine partnership approach to replace the divisive nursery voucher scheme," he said.
"I urge all those with a stake in the education of young children - parents, employers, local authorities, voluntary and private sector providers - to act now to build partnerships, in preparation for the expansion of early-years services after the general election."
Mr Blunkett said Labour's "ambitious target" was to promise that all four-year-olds returning to nursery or school next autumn would no longer need a voucher to continue their education in either the public, voluntary or private sector.
Local Early Years Forums would set targets to expand the education of four-year-olds, in accordance with local needs and resources.
The shadow circular says: "An initial target in all areas will be to ensure the provision of a pre-school place for every four-year-old whose parents wish them to take it up. Given the current pattern of provision, we believe that this objective can be achieved within our first 18 months of office."
Labour will fund new places with the Pounds 20 million it claims is being wasted on voucher bureaucracy. Money deducted from education authorities' standard spending assessments under the voucher scheme will be returned to them "as soon as is practicable".
The document says: "Negotiations will take place during the summer and early autumn 1997 to secure agreement on the level of funding required to meet the objectives of central government within the overall financial totals available - including the reallocation of administration and bureaucratic costs."
After the conference, Margaret Lochrie, the alliance's chief executive, welcomed David Blunkett's speech and said it represented a significant shift by Labour towards the voluntary sector.
She said: "There clearly has been a shift. A year or two ago I am pretty sure you would not have found an explicit speech favouring the expansion of nursery education by the voluntary sector."
She added that Labour's timetable was "quite pacey" and questioned whether the party would be able to have its early-years plan up and running in September 1998.
Mrs Lochrie described the mood at the conference as one of "terrible anxiety".
"Mostly members wanted to talk about vouchers and the apprehension about what is going to happen," she said. "Despite the clear message from David Blunkett, they are apprehensive about change as well. That is inevitable. People welcome the funding the vouchers has brought in the phase one areas but that is an empty benefit if all that is going to happen is that pre-schools which have been going for 25 years are going to close down."
Mrs Lochrie was referring to the seven playgroups which have closed in Norfolk because of the competition between the private, voluntary and state sectors and the scramble to attract voucher-bearing four-year-olds.
Education minister Robin Squire, who also spoke at the conference, sympathised with those who were concerned about the playgroup closures.
But he was unable to provide any Government commitment on regulating the intake of primary school reception classes - a promise that passionate speakers at the conference were desperate to hear.