Pilot councils come to grips with impact of nursery vouchers

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Highland Council is protesting that the pilot nursery voucher scheme which starts in August will not meet the cost of providing new facilities.

Jack Findlay, Highland's head of school and curriculum development, puts the extra burden at Pounds 30,000. The far-flung authority hopes to expand provision in Badenoch and Strathspey and Caithness by 450 places during the one-year pilot. Income from vouchers will be about Pounds 495,000.

But Argyll and Bute, which is also controlled by Independents, plans to create 500 places and says that under its pilot all costs will be covered.

Vouchers are also being piloted by Labour-run North Ayrshire and the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration in East Renfrewshire. All but Argyll and Bute have argued that cash would be better spent if it was handed directly to local authorities. They concede they were seduced into joining the pilot by the offer of funds to cover running costs.

The Scottish Office has provided Pounds 3 million for the pilot, which will be introduced nationwide in 1997 at a cost of Pounds 30 million if the Conservatives retain power. Each voucher is worth Pounds 1,100.

North Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire, the two Labour-led councils, are both anxious to expand nursery places. North Ayrshire expects to double its provision, adding a further 600 part-time places. One in four children currently has a place. A report on the pilot will go before the council's education committee on Tuesday.

John Travers, North Ayrshire's education director, said: "We are against the scheme in principle. But we have agreed to the pilot, partly because we are keen to expand the number of places, and partly because we want to demonstrate the scheme's shortcomings."

Currently around half of pre-school children in East Renfrewshire have a place and the council hopes to add a further 250. Public meetings to explain how vouchers work will take place at the end of this month.

Jim Fletcher, East Renfrewshire's education convener, said it would cost Pounds 470,000 to create 250 extra places, but the pilot will only provide around Pounds 310,000. "I am not happy about the concept of vouchers, but expanding pre-fives provision is one of our key policies. This was a pragmatic decision to get our hands on the cash," Mr Fletcher said.

Danny McCafferty, education convener in West Dunbartonshire, argued that the scheme would create an "absolute monster"

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