Perils on Labour's path to expansion
"I wouldn't set off from here."
That is roughly how Labour's education team must feel as it looks set to inherit a Conservative nursery voucher scheme that will have gone nationwide just weeks before the election.
"Our aim," says the party's policy document, New Labour, New Life for Britain, "is to guarantee nursery education for all three and four year-olds." But the voucher scheme is restricted to four-year-olds and one of its effects, as this week's Commons select committee report makes clear, is to drive a wedge between provision for them (predominantly in reception classes) and the pre-schools and nurseries for younger children.
"We do not favour vouchers, since they are bureaucratic and are a poor means of generating more quality nursery places," the policy document goes on. "We will use the money to guarantee places for four-year-olds and start the expansion of provision for three-year-olds."
So how would Labour get from here to there, from a voucher-based scheme to one of universal provision for both three and four-year-olds based on partnership between state, voluntary and private providers?
As ever, New Labour is pragmatic about what it could achieve and how fast. The first step, according to the spokesman for David Blunkett, shadow education secretary, is to ensure that all four-year-olds have a pre-school place, an aim the party thinks it could achieve within 18 months. Most would continue to be in reception classes for the near future but Labour would promote the role of classroom assistants to improve staffing ratios.
"We're not going to pretend they're all nursery education places," he said. "That's a worthwhile objective over time."
Labour would not issue any more vouchers after the summer term but existing voucher-holders would be entitled to keep their children's places until they started school full-time at the age of five. In the case of parents using vouchers in private nurseries, a Labour government would honour the value of the voucher for the remaining two terms.
That, said Mr Blunkett's spokesman, would get rid of the bureaucracy of the voucher scheme as soon as possible. And Labour is relying on saving Pounds 20m from the administration of the voucher scheme, as well as using the Pounds 165m of "new money" for vouchers, to pay for the necessary expansion in nursery places.
In addition, a Labour government would set targets for extending the entitlement of a place to all three-year-olds.
Local education authorities would form partnerships with voluntary and private sector providers - early-years forums - that would plan the expansion of early-years services in their areas. This, according to Labour, would protect the position of playgroups rather than squeezing them out, as the voucher pilots have tended to do.
Labour also plans to set up 25 centres of early excellence that would provide models of integrated child care for the under-fives. Half-days of nursery education would be provided free, while child care fees would be based on ability to pay. The party hopes these centres would have a "cascade effect" on pre-school provision throughout the country.