Councils will only do business with private nurseries that join the Scottish Independent Nurseries' Association and have acquired its quality kitemark.
This was made clear last week by Elizabeth Maginnis, the education authorities' chief spokesperson, who praised the association's new quality standards, drawn up with the help of Glasgow University's education department. More than 50 of SINA's 126 member nurseries have been approved so far.
The quality assurance scheme together with SINA membership gave the private sector credibility, Mrs Maginnis told the association's annual conference last week. The replacement of the voucher scheme now allowed the two to be in "benevolent partnership rather than straightforward commercial competition".
SINA leaders were not, however, convinced that Government and local authority rhetoric about partnerships would be realised in practice. The new Scottish Office policy on pre-school funding and training puts councils in the driving seat and at least one director of education, Bob McKay in Perth and Kinross, believes they should have the lead role in quality assurance as well.
Mrs Maginnis announced that Edinburgh, where she is chair of education, was considering the expansion of nursery hours in selected areas of the city. She acknowledged that this might be "bad news" for private nurseries but said it would be targeted, concentrating on day care for lower and middle income groups rather than "core education".
The upper end of the market was well catered for by the private sector while disadvantaged areas were supported by council day care or voluntary organisations, she said.
But this view of partnership was dismissed by Patricia McGinty, vice-convener of SINA in the west of Scotland who said "parents do not choose the private sector because it has extended day care but because they prefer what it has to offer. They see that staffing ratios are very much better than in local authority nurseries, they realise that the quality of the education is high, and they are satisfied that standards are assured under the Children Act, by our own scheme and through HMI."
Mrs McGinty, who heads the Bishopbriggs childcare centre, said: "We want a mixed economy, not something in which the education authority is for the poor and the private sector for the rich. We should be working together to expand the market, not fighting each other to carve out slices from it."
Leslie Beber, head of Little Acorns nursery in Edinburgh, suggested that councils buy places in the private sector which could be made available to less well-off families. Mrs Beber, convener of the Lothian SINA group, claimed this would avoid councils incurring capital costs but Mrs Maginnis said that would be "unlikely".
But in response to Valerie Fotheringham, a member of South Lanarkshire's early years forum and owner of two nurseries in the Rutherglen area, Mrs Maginnis agreed the idea might be "an area for discussion and negotiation".
South Lanarkshire is considering partnerships with the private sector. "The alternative is to waste money," Mrs Fotheringham said. "There are quality-assured nurseries with empty places and it makes more sense for local authorities to take these up, which would release money for them to spend on other things."
Irrespective of the relationship between public and private sector, Mrs Maginnis said councils could not expect to run the show and there would have to be "a patchwork of provision".
She added: "The role of the private sector will become of increasing importance where local authorities are not able to make full provision. I do not envisage that nursery education will be wholly publicly provided."
Mrs Maginnis insisted that Edinburgh's plans, which will expand the normal two-and-a-half-hour daily session to become an 8am-6pm operation, would not cover all pre-school children. "We are testing the market but we are not aggressively marketing ourselves. There are areas of the city where parents would never dream of sending their children to an education authority nursery and we are comfortable with that."
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