Ministers to rule on extra voucher cash

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Linda Blackburne on the man from the ministry's efforts to reassure early-years specialists. New cash for the Government's beleaguered nursery voucher scheme is being considered by ministers.

The Department for Education and Employment will decide soon whether to inject extra money for children with special needs into the voucher scheme, due to be piloted in four authorities early next year. Areas where the cost of a nursery place is high may also receive additional cash.

The news emerged during questions to DFEE civil servant Michael Hipkins at the National Early Years Network's annual general meeting which was held in London last week.

Mr Hipkins also said ministers were considering the great range of child-teacher ratios in nurseries and pre-schools and what impact this would have on early-years inspections and targets.

Early-years experts have been consulted on both the inspections and the targets - what four-year-olds should know and understand by the time they start school. The DFEE had received 360 responses to its quality assurance consultation paper and replies had been overwhelmingly in favour of giving the Office for Standards in Education responsibility for pre-school inspections.

Mr Hipkins said the DFEE was discussing with OFSTED the minimum number of nursery sessions a child would need to attend a week to meet the targets. Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, was expected to make a decision soon.

Ministers were thinking of giving parents one voucher a term for their four-year-olds so they could change pre-schools if they wished, said Mr Hipkins, adding that some parents might want their children to attend two institutions within a week.

Education minister Robin Squire had noticed the rivalry between pre-schools and nurseries on his travels around the country. State and private nurseries, and playgroups were all telling Mr Squire they were worried about losing children.

"I don't think all of you can lose," said Mr Hipkins. "I think there will be a greater move towards co-operation."

But his audience was far from convinced. Many of the questions were critical of the voucher scheme, and some, such as independent child-care consultant Diane Fernhead's, poked fun at the Government.

She asked: "How much would it cost to take Pounds 1,100 from the local education authority and give it back again?" The money for the Pounds 1, 100 vouchers will be clawed back from the education authorities and then returned to them if parents spend the vouchers at their nurseries.

Many members of the audience were concerned about being inspected by people with little knowledge of nurseries, such as lay inspectors and "ex-PE secondary teachers".

There were sniggers when Mr Hipkins said: "A light touch inspection does not mean without rigour." Ministers have said nurseries will have to pass a "light touch" inspection to qualify for vouchers.

There was also concern about how pre-schools that were exempt from the provisions of the Children Act, such as those run by the armed forces and hospitals, and those on Crown property, would fit into the voucher scheme. Mr Hipkins conceded this was something the DFEE had not considered and said he would look into it.

Nurseries and pre-schools are facing two inspections: one by social services and one by the body responsible for vouchers. Why couldn't the Government combine the two?

But Mr Hipkins said the voucher inspection would be needed for additional educational criteria.

Afterwards, Susan McQuail, of the Sheffield-based Choices in Childcare pressure group, said he did not seem to realise that the social services inspection also included quality and education.

"This kind of ignorance just epitomises what is wrong with the scheme, " she said.

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