Ministers are preparing to set minimum criteria for curriculum and staff qualifications for nurseries and playgroups hoping to be funded under the Government's pre-school expansion plans.
The new qualifications would probably not be demanded from the start, but could be phased in over three to five years.
The funding mechanism has not yet been determined. One method reportedly being considered is to establish another quango along the lines of the Funding Agency for Schools to administer the cash.
Another possibility is for local authorities to take on this function, but this could be rejected because of anti-LEA sentiments within the Government. There are rumours of a dispute between the Department for Education and 10 Downing Street over the issue, with the DFE supporting the use of LEAs. Giving vouchers to parents is also a possibility, but not considered a front runner.
A new quango would not be popular with either the local authorities or the early-years lobby. It would be "horrendous", said Gillian Pugh, head of the under-fives unit at the National Children's Bureau. She said any system for funding the expansion should be locally accountable. "I don't see why it can't be the local authorities in cooperation with the private and voluntary sectors, working with the mechanism set up for the Children Act," said Ms Pugh.
Under the Children Act, local authorities regulate and inspect private and voluntary childcare, ensuring health and safety standards are met. The Act also sets out minimum adult-child ratios.
Proposals from the DFE's task force investigating how to fulfil the Prime Minister's commitment to boost nursery provision for four-year-olds before the next election and gradually offer places to all four-year-olds are expected to reach Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's desk by the end of March, and are then likely to be published for consultation. Final plans should go to the Cabinet in the summer. Spending decisions will have to be reflected in November's budget.
It is not yet clear how much money will be spent, or what sort of provision - such as playgroups, private nurseries or four-year-olds in local authority reception classes - will receive the biggest slice of the cake.
Work on a curriculum framework is the most advanced of all the aspects to be determined. Proposals from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education have already been sent to the task force. These proposals were expected to recommend a flexible framework suited to a variety of settings which focused on the process of learning as well as the content, and to have elaborated on a series of "areas of learning" set out by HM Inspectors, including linguistic, mathematical, aesthetic and creative, moral and scientific.
While the Government will want to specify the minimum qualifications needed by pre-school staff, it does not appear to have decided yet what these should be.