The private nursery sector has issued its strongest warning yet that many schools could be driven out of business if the Government insists on giving councils the prime responsibility for the expansion of pre-school education.
In its response to the Government's consultation paper, the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association (SINA) states: "The funding proposals threaten the viability of the entire independent and voluntary sectors and the concomitant loss of the flexible, comprehensive services we to provide to families."
The association, which has 150 member nurseries with 25,000 children, welcomes the proposal for greater integration in delivering day care and education as a joint endeavour by the local authorities, private nurseries and playgroups.
But it anticipates that "the rhetoric will not match practice on the ground without a measure of coercion on local authorities to take note of parents' wishes . . . we fear that without this obligation some local authorities will be very reluctant to part with any money".
The Scottish Office consultation paper makes clear that its specific pre-school grant, ring-fenced and worth Pounds 76 million in 1998-99, is to be paid directly to councils and shared with other sectors. But it says ministers cannot oblige authorities to enter into partnerships for this purpose "nor, as a matter of policy, would they wish to".
But private operators claim there is "early evidence" that some local authorities will choose not to pass on grant to the private and voluntary schools. It instances the fact that only one council informed the independent sector of the existence of the Government's "new deal" money for education, and says that local authorities have not moved quickly enough to disburse the Scottish Office's Pounds 1.1 million training grant for pre-school staff.
The Government says it is willing to try to ensure fair play by giving an indication of how the nursery voucher money divided between the three sectors this year. But the association says many councils have yet to set up early year forums and "show little inclination to communicate with independent providers, or with SINA as the umbrella organisation".
Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has already said that councils would have to rely on the other sectors to fulfil the Government's pledge of a nursery place for all four-year-olds by the end of this year. Mrs Maginnis pledged that her own authority, Edinburgh, would only contract with nurseries that had achieved the quality assurance standard devised for the private sector.