In the next few weeks application forms for Pounds 1,100 nursery education vouchers will drop through the letter boxes of 64,000 Scottish children. How will parents respond to them? How will they affect nurseries and playgroups? Seonag MacKinnon went to the Badenoch area of the Highlands to seek the views of parents and staff who have been taking part in one of the four pilot schemes in Scotland
Rachel Ure pushes a buggy through the rain to the new private nursery in Kingussie, where she intends to present her daughter and the Pounds 1,100 of education vouchers she will receive free from the Government later this year. "I can't quite believe it," she says. "Do we have to give the money back later?" Mrs Ure's delight tempered by confusion was common to most of the parents who are already involved with vouchers. Siobhan Wardrope, who has a child at Aviemore Playgroup, confirms: "The mums are getting into the swing of things now, but they're still a bit in awe."
It is not quite like winning the National Lottery, but pieces of paper offering Pounds 1,100 to spend at the accredited establishment of your choice seem to be popular. The $64 million question, however, is whether the excitement is generated not so much by the portable money token as by the launch of free high-quality pre-school education.
Labour, which has pledged itself to offer a free nursery place to all four-year-olds in state schools, is hoping that parents will view the vouchers as an expensive sideshow which they claim wastes almost Pounds 1.5 million a year on administration; the Government figure is Pounds 640,000. If elected, Labour plans to scrap the scheme, although vouchers issued in May will be valid in August. No further vouchers would be issued.
Aviemore Playgroup chairman Diana Sinclair, who has a child attending both the nursery and the playgroup, believes parents are "split 50:50" on the issue. "With harder-up parents it is very much Pounds signs. 'I'm getting rid of my kids five days a week and it's free'. With other mothers they feel it's great because their children are for the first time getting very good pre-school education."
Chaos reigned when the pilot scheme suddenly got the go-ahead last Easter. Interested organisations had to decide rapidly, complete an 18-page application form, recruit staff, find premises, equip them, set budgets and possibly refurbish the building. It was particularly difficult as no organisation knew how many vouchers would come its way until a very late stage.
Mrs Sinclair says: "We're just ordinary mothers on the playgroup committee. It was very, very hard for us to organise all this. People were asking us questions and we didn't know the answers ourselves. We've heard of many playgroups which have just closed."
Aviemore Playgroup fears for its own future, as in the pilot year its numbers have dropped from 70 to less than 50. Among the rising fives the fall has been from 24 to just 14. The drop has been all the more demoralising since the playgroup has upped its game dramatically to enable it to gain provider status for the voucher scheme. Mrs Wardrope says: "Before kids would just come in and do their own thing. It's much more organised now. Children are taught things. "
The playgroup's play leader, nursery nurse and helpers work through a curriculum involving topics such as communication and language development, knowledge and understanding of the world, and physical development.
The improvement in the playgroup is striking, as is the tiring, unglamorous fundraising to provide new equipment and the sheer determination of the group to stay afloat. But the contrast between a playgroup operating in a village hall and the new teacher-led freshly furbished and equipped nursery which has sprung up at the local school, is stark.
Voucher applications reflected this. The 20-place nursery was significantly over-subscribed and the disparity in popularity is expected to be even more pronounced next year. The speed with which the pilot was introduced left some Aviemore parents feeling bound by loyalty to the playgroup, which had been there for their children when there was no other organisation. Some parents worried that the nursery would be too academic, prematurely launching their children into a world of writing and sums.
By now, some of those loyalty ties may have been loosened and doubts about the nursery erased. Area education manager Murdo Gillies predicts that if vouchers are not abolished, the nursery will in future attract almost all vouchers by introducing afternoon sessions for a further 20 children.
Mortal combat between playgroup and nursery is not in evidence. In the pilot scheme the over-subscribed nursery negotiated for some children to spend one or two mornings a week in the playgroup. Some parents liked the opportunity for their children to have more free play for part of the week, and the greater freedom for parents offered by the playgroup's four-hour session twice a week. But the complexity of this arrangement, the lack of continuity for children and staff, and the perceived superiority of the nursery make it unlikely many vouchers will be distributed this way for much longer.
"Although we're pleased for our children that the nursery is there now, we're very anxious about our own future," says Mrs Sinclair. "If we lose the voucher children to the nursery, or Labour comes in and abolishes vouchers, we couldn't pay our rent and other overheads. We couldn't make up the numbers with younger children, so we'd have to go down to two mornings a week or close.
"All our staff are on temporary contracts. It's a desperate situation. "
Playleader Carolann Moccan shakes her head at the voucher system. "Children seem to be just money now. They have Pounds signs on their heads. It would have been much better to give the money direct to the organisations."
But some parents applauded the fact that vouchers hit their doormats first. They spoke of satisfaction in holding a piece of paper which left them feeling that some of their taxes were returned to them.
Donna Anderson, whose son Sam attends nursery three days and playgroup two days, says: "The two places have different things to offer. I like having the choice. It is what the system was designed to do."
Aviemore Primary School headteacher John Nethercott applauds the co-operation between playgroup and nursery. "The voucher system was designed to encourage competition, but there have been no unfortunate clashes between us."
Although keen to avoid "value judgment" of the playgroup, Mr Nethercott pointed out that the nursery will, for example, be better able to meet the needs of under-privileged children.
"Nursery staff are good at language and listening skills, but teachers are far better."
Nursery children will also have the chance to be seen by a school doctor and see a speech therapist. Problems can be picked up early. But all children are likely to benefit greatly from nursery, he stressed. "We expect to see a big difference in their maths, social skills and readiness for reading when they get into Primary 1."
Asked why he felt so many vouchers had come his way, Mr Nethercott says he feels that parents like their children attending a school nursery - and the children like it too. "We go to school," they tell everyone who will listen.
Mr Nethercott is optimistic about the future. "It was a chaotic start, because it was all done at a rush. It wasn't the local authority's fault. I feel the Government loaded a rocket, fired - and then aimed."
But if the voucher system continues, he does not think the bureaucracy will be a problem from now on. And other schools will flood to join in, he predicts. "It's good for the children and it is one way for authorities to use empty space to coin in money."
Highland Council schools are unusual in having virtually no competition from the private sector. There seems to be little demand and little provision. In theory, Aviemore Nursery could have a rival in the new private nursery which opened in January in Kingussie 12 miles away, catering for children from three months to school age from 8.30am to 6pm.
Stepping Stones offers parents flexible hours, likely to be of particular interest to families where both parents are working. Siblings can also be together, even if there is a considerable age gap, and children can enjoy a slightly better ratio of staff to children (1:8 as opposed to 1:10 at Aviemore Nursery).
Stepping Stones administrator Jenny Eccles is irritated by the National Union of Teachers' call south of the border for parents to send their voucher children to local authority nurseries. "I can't think of a good reason why," she says. "You will get at least the same standard of care in a private nursery and perhaps better."
Conceding that her nursery has no teacher, Mrs Eccles says: "We teach the rising fives to read and write - well, we teach them the alphabet and phonics. We automatically teach them all kinds of social and intellectual skills. " She adds that some of the larger private nursery chains do have teachers.
The voucher scheme had not encouraged the launch of Stepping Stones, she says, since the scheme could be scrapped by an incoming Labour government. Just two voucher children are at the nursery which opened several months after the pilot launch.
Policy pronouncements indicate that whatever the colour of the incoming government, nursery education with or without vouchers is set for rapid expansion. Last word on the matter from John Nethercott: "I don't know of any eligible child in the town who hasn't accepted the new pre-school education. Parents would be very upset if it were to stop. These are steps forward that cannot stop."
The four authorities involved in the nursery voucher pilots in Scotland are Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire, Highland and North Ayrshire. In the Highland areas that took part: * 101.3 per cent of parents receive vouchers, that is, greater than the number estimated; * 100 per cent of local authority providers took part; 44 per cent of private and voluntary organisations; * 73.9 per cent of children attended a local authority nursery; 26.1 per cent a private or voluntary organisation * 96 per cent of children attended one centre only; 4 per cent attended two each week.
The above figures are taken from the progress report on the Pre-School Education Voucher Initiative, by the national evaluation team at Stirling University, January 1997