Pilot vouchers get a mixed response

5th April 1996 at 01:00
The Government's pilot voucher scheme intended to fulfil John Major's pledge to offer a nursery place to all four-year-olds whose parents want one has received a mixed response in the four local education authorities trying it out.

Only 45 per cent (771) of parents in Westminster, and 54 per cent (703) in Kensington and Chelsea, have applied for vouchers under the scheme.

But take-up in the two other authorities, Wandsworth and Norfolk, is significantly higher, with 76 per cent (2,262) and 87 per cent (7,539) respectively. The figures, which were issued by the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) this week are disputed by the Campaign Against Vouchers in Education (CAVE).

A letter to Labour councillors in Westminster from deputy education director Neville Coulson, and passed on to CAVE, says: "As at March 15, 792 forms have been returned which the DFEE currently believes represents 42 per cent of four-year-olds in Westminster. We have, however, challenged this calculation because we believe that there are 2,400 in Westminster in which case the percentage return becomes 33 per cent."

Mr Coulson told The TES: "I would be surprised if we have 100 per cent returns by the beginning of term because of the problems of reaching mobile children in bed and breakfast families and refugees whose names are not on the child benefit register. If the families do not speak English, the chance of reaching them is not high."

Although information about the voucher scheme has been translated into six languages in Westminster, efforts to reach the non-English speaking communities appear to have failed. Education officers believe Norfolk's percentage return is high because it has few non-English speakers.

But Vicky Hutchin, a co-ordinator for CAVE, and a former nursery teacher in Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, said: "There is a high number of application forms not returned because parents do not realise what this is about. They do not see why they should have to fill in a form to get a voucher when their children are already in free state education."

A DFEE spokeswoman said the April 15 deadline was flexible, and if children turned up at the beginning of term without vouchers, they would still be eligible for them.

Headteachers have each been given 10 blank voucher application forms in anticipation of such problems but at a Local Management in Schools conference in Kent last week, education officers, heads and governors queried how the figure of 10 had been arrived at.

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