Major's vital recruits start at four

30th June 1995 at 01:00
The Department for Education is thought to be recruiting local authorities to participate in a nursery voucher pilot scheme.

Nursery places for four-year-olds are now a vital part of John Major's leadership campaign, following his public announcement last Saturday that vouchers will be introduced. The idea has long been a personal scheme of the Prime Minister's. The most likely area for a try-out is the Tory flagship London borough of Wandsworth, whose spokesman this week would not comment when asked if the authority had been approached by the DFE. Previously, Wandsworth has said it had not been asked but was ready, willing and able to pilot vouchers.

Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, has told MPs that all will become clear within the next few weeks, when she will make a detailed announcement to the Commons on nursery expansion.

It is thought that the Government wants to recruit up to a dozen authorities for a pilot, but councils like Wandsworth - sympathetic to the policy and brimming with state and private provision - are thin on the ground. The Government will have to pass legislation to introduce a fully-fledged voucher scheme, because it would amount to charging for state education. It could not force any LEA to participate in a pilot. No authorities contacted by The TES said they had been asked.

However, Buckinghamshire County Council's chief education officer Stephen Sharp was cautious in his response. "We are going to try to be ready so that whatever the announcement is, we can get the best we can for Buckinghamshire youngsters," he said. "We have all-party support for expanding nursery education as soon as we can afford it. We will look at any measures to achieve that aim."

The City of Westminster's deputy director of education, Nevil Coulson, said the authority might be interested.

However, more than half its four-year-olds have no provision at present, so it is hard to see how there could be sufficient expansion in a short time to meet a guarantee to all their parents.

Among Conservative authorities, Solihull is the leader in pre-school provision. Education chairman Geoff Wright said that all their four-year-olds are in nursery or infant classes, and "we have done it without vouchers". He hoped that the new proposals would not penalise those who had invested in this area.

The meagre information in the Prime Minister's speech to constituency chairmen launched another raft of speculation about the contents of any expansion package. There was no doubt that the Pre-school Learning Alliance (formerly the Pre-school Playgroups Association) has come out of the lobbying and development period well, fuelling concern among Labour politicians that the commitment to nursery "education" had been watered down.

Mr Major said that vouchers would enable parents to select a place at "a council-run school, a grant-maintained school, a private or voluntary school or a playgroup".

Although the Government has always said that playgroups would be included, Shadow Education Secretary David Blunkett's office saw this as a widening of the definition of nursery education. "Our view is that playgroups should be complementary to education," they said.

Although pleased to be included, the PLA's chief executive officer, Margaret Lochrie, has a number of questions: How will quality be assured, what kind of standards will there be, where will the new places come from, and will children be guaranteed five mornings or afternoons a week?

One informed source believes the PLA could be asked to take charge of standards in playgroups.

At a seminar sponsored by Montessori last weekend at the Ramada Hotel at Heathrow, Labour's Margaret Hodge said that her party considered it "inappropriate to put money into vouchers".

Sir Christopher Ball, author of the 1994 Start Right report, told the audience of about 60 early-years workers that they "should be cheering - we have a Prime Minister who is campaigning for his future and a central plank of his campaign is the early years."

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