Biddy Passmore reports on the start of the voucher scheme, while Linda Blackburne asks parents what they really think. Eleven thousand application forms for nursery vouchers are winging their way from the Child Benefit Centre in Co. Durham to parents in Norfolk, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Wandsworth.
From April 1 these four authorities will be piloting the Government's scheme to give parents of four-year-olds Pounds 1,100 a year to spend on nursery education.
If they decide to apply, parents whose children turn four before the start of next term will receive a voucher by March. Those with later birthdays will receive their vouchers in the early summer or autumn.
Parents receive one voucher per term to be exchanged at maintained or private nurseries or voluntary pre-schools - it is up to them to sort out the number of sessions the child attends per week.
But the voucher will not give them the right to demand a place at any particular nursery. For instance, those encouraged by the Pounds 1,100 subsidy to try a private nursery and top up the voucher out of their own pockets may well find it full, with a long waiting-list.
However, the vouchers should mean more local authority nursery places - at least in Norfolk. Expansion is the only reason the hung council has agreed to be a guinea-pig. "Our reason for taking part is very clear," says Michael Edwards, county education officer. "Norfolk is dismally low in nursery provision and we're using the voucher to increase it."
The county only decided to take part once it had secured the Government's agreement that it could pay for the new places by increasing its capital borrowing and servicing the debt out of voucher income - an agreement that must have been won by the application of thumb-screws to Treasury mandarins.
The three London boroughs which are taking part are all Tory-controlled and more committed to the principle of the voucher. But one, Westminster, will also be using the scheme to counter a "horrendous" shortage of places, according to Liz Jones, the borough's nursery expansion project manager.
While all of Norfolk's new places will be in primary schools, Westminster is looking at joint projects with the private or voluntary sector. In Kensington and Chelsea, the borough is mostly concerned with getting the system up and running, and especially with distributing vouchers to a fairly transient population. "The main problem is administration," says Michael Stoten, chief education officer. But the borough is planning to use voucher income to expand the number of nursery places, perhaps by adding two or three centres of a kind not yet determined.
"Most children in Kensington and Chelsea are catered for one way or another, " says Mr Stoten. "What they don't all get is nursery education."
Most ideologically committed among the four pilot LEAs is Wandsworth, where Edward Lister, leader of the council, believes that possession of a voucher changes the relationship between parent and nursery head. The borough is not planning any expansion, believing that the maintained and private sectors can meet all the demand.
In Norfolk, the DFEE has agreed to let parents take their vouchers to the authority and not directly to nursery providers. The council can then allocate the money under its local management scheme. In the three London boroughs, parents will take their vouchers direct to the school or playgroup.
All four authorities are confident that the income they recoup through vouchers will more than make up for the cash the Government has clawed back from them to pay for the scheme.
The prospect for playgroups in the pilot areas is uncertain. Some, who have a high proportion of four-year-olds, will get a sudden boost to their income. Few, however, will get the full Pounds 1,100 for three terms, since nearly all children leave before their fifth birthday.
The priorities are equipment, staff and training. Marie McKinney, who runs a playgroup in the Maida Vale area of Westminster, says vouchers could pay for an extra helper for children with special needs and might even make it possible for the group to offer afternoon sessions. At present, the playgroup has four four-year-olds out of 16 children but will lose them in the summer term. It is, as she says, hard to plan.
As for private nursery schools, those in London at any rate may not see much change. Most children start at age two-and-a-half and many leave shortly after their fourth birthday. Jane Ritchie, head of the Mynors' nursery school in Holland Park, points out that help from vouchers for perhaps a term would not be enough to tempt parents into the private sector. Her school is in any case full for the next three years.
How the four pilots compare
Kensington and Chelsea
Number of four-year-olds: 1,500.
LEA nursery provision: four nursery schools and 19 nursery classes catering for about 450 four-year-olds.
Other provision: 62 centres, including 29 private nursery schools, eight private day nurseries, playgroups and creches. An estimated 40 per cent of four-year-olds in private sector.
Policy on rising fives: most admitted to primary school in term they become five.
Amount of government grant borough has lost to reflect introduction of vouchers: Pounds 700,000.
Expansion: two nursery centres being built and aim to open two more.
Four-year-olds: 9,250, with just over half in primary schools as rising fives.
LEA nursery provision: four nursery schools and 17 nursery classes with half-time places for nearly 1,400 children. Only 8 per cent of three and four-year-olds in maintained nursery provision.
Private nurseries: 21.
Playgroups: 350, catering for some 8,000 two to four-year-olds.
Policy on rising fives: children normally admitted full-time to primary school in term before they turn five.
Amount of grant lost to reflect introduction of vouchers: Pounds 6.8m.
Expansion: plans 25-30 new nursery classes in primary schools.
Number of four-year-olds: 3,300, with nearly three-quarters in maintained schools.
LEA nursery provision: three nursery schools and 45 classes.
Other provision: more than 100 independent providers, including playgroups and private nurseries.
Policy on rising fives: start primary school in September of year when turn five.
Amount of government grant borough has lost to reflect introduction of vouchers: Pounds 2.4m.
Expansion: none planned at present.
Number of four-year-olds: 2,500.
LEA provision: three nursery schools and 27 nursery classes (total of four-year-old pupils, 450).
Other provision: 340 pupils in private nurseries, 260 in voluntary sector, 65 in social services day nurseries.
Shortfall: 1,400 with no place.
Policy on rising fives: usually admitted to primary school at start of term in which turn five, but some voluntary schools admit earlier.
Amount of government grant lost to reflect introduction of vouchers: Pounds 2.4m.
Expansion: Aim is to get "a few hundred more" places in 1996-97.