Parents are left perplexed
Vouchers have brought little improvement to nursery education in Wales, where most councils already provide places for four-year-olds.
Local authorities, mainly Labour-controlled, make little effort to hide their hostility towards the scheme, which, as they see it, does not address their circumstances, but creates bureaucracy and confuses parents. It is an initiative "driven by political dogma not educational sense", according to Vivian Thomas, director of education in Neath and Port Talbot. Mike Keating, assistant education director in the Rhondda, described it as "totally ill-conceived and unnecessary".
Annette Evans, a primary adviser in Aberconwy and Colwyn, agreed: "We're in danger of destroying a system that was on the way to being reasonably good. If there was extra money, why not share it and get some sort of structure for under-fives which is effective and will help working parents?" Some councils offer part-time nursery places at three, and fear that these could be undermined by future shortfalls in voucher income.
"With further budget cuts, non-statutory provision will need further scrutiny," said Graham Avery, Bridgend's assistant education director. "If we value early-years teaching, that would be absolutely criminal."
With most four-year-olds already in the LEA system - albeit often in mixed-age reception classes - few schools have needed to change their admission policies. Wrexham has extended its provision for three-year-olds from five sessions a fortnight to five a week.
Anomalies have arisen. In Bridgend, where all rising fives are guaranteed places but provision for four-year-olds is patchy, some schools wanted to admit voucher-bearing children - but have been told not to by the LEA, which fears the quality of education would be diluted.
One school in the Rhondda, however, decided not to admit voucher-bearing pupils a term before their normal start date because of the knock-on cost and inconvenience.
Parents are generally bemused by the process: "They cannot understand why they need a piece of paper to entitle their child to an education it was already receiving aged three," said one officer. Numerous application forms have been put in the bin by mistake.
Nearly all councils have mounted publicity campaigns and organised meetings to explain vouchers. Wrexham has run a free hotline for the past two months.
In an effort to reduce bureaucracy and recoup as much money as possible, some Welsh LEAs are handling the voucher administration centrally. Of those who are leaving it to the schools, only a few have been able to find extra money for the added workload.
Education officers are generally unimpressed by the inspection process. They say that the "light touch" inspections will create a two-tier system, that many new inspectors lack relevant expertise, and that the whole process will take too long.
The private sector has been weakened by the introduction of vouchers. Some voluntary playgroups, including Welsh language ones, may also become too small to survive as voucher-bearing four-year-olds switch to the state sector.
"We are very concerned about the effect on provision for 21Z2 to 31Z2-year-olds," said Hywel Jones, director of Mudiad Ysgolion Meichrin (the Welsh Playgroup Association).
It is, he believes, a change for the worse, with many four-year-olds going into state reception classes which, in small rural schools, may have pupils as old as six. "In some cases, the quality of education for four-year-olds will be far inferior to what they are getting now."