Take the vouchers and run

28th June 1996 at 01:00
You're against them in principle. But, hell, there are some benefits . .. not least for a cash-strapped council. Shirley English reports on North Ayrshire's experience as a Scottish guinea-pig.

Nursery vouchers, their critics would say, were conceived in haste and are now giving their ministerial parents richly deserved sleepless nights. The House of Lords, which last week voted against the scheme going national next year without a full evaluation, is having to be soothed. And the authorities piloting the controversial reform are wringing concessions from a Government anxious to have Pounds 1,100 vouchers plopping on to doormats before electoral registration forms.

The most concessions have been made to Norfolk, the only Labour-controlled authority of the four English pilots. It is not, however, the only Labour cuckoo in the voucher carrycot. Up on the east coast of Scotland, North Ayrshire has joined in despite vouchers being against its principles, principles which neighbouring South Ayrshire is a constant reminder of.

For the hundreds of parents who have started to enrol their children at North Ayrshire's 15 new nursery schools, the Government's voucher scheme is proving a mixed blessing.

The Labour-controlled council, one of four local authorities piloting the scheme in Scotland, has reported widespread confusion arising from the increased bureaucracy. Many parents, particularly those who have already put older children through the system, cannot understand why they now have to fill in so many forms - starting with the initial voucher application to Capita Services, the private Surrey-based management company. Some parents also did not know that they could enrol their child at a nursery before getting their Pounds 1,100 worth of vouchers through the post.

In an effort to clarify the situation, the council has been forced to take out adverts in the local press. Those who don't apply for vouchers might miss out on a nursery place and therefore much-needed income for the council. But ironically even those with vouchers are not guaranteed a place and may have difficulties spending their booklet, particularly as some voluntary-sector playgroups have not yet registered with the Scottish Office, as they are required to do.

Teething troubles aside, John Travers, North Ayrshire's education director, claims parents are delighted with the 630 extra part-time places which will come on stream this August. Nearly 40 jobs have been created at the 15 new units, set up predominantly in primary schools. In a few places the lack of school accommodation has meant alternatives have had to be found. In Arran a peripatetic service is being established with a full-time nursery nurse dividing her time between different rural areas. In Fairlie a new nursery is due to open in the village hall, while in Kilwinning, huts are being used. Local primary heads have taken on the role of managers on an outreach basis.

Fairlie primary headteacher Linda Campbell is excited by her new responsibility and sees the expansion as a "wonderful opportunity" to develop the 0-5 curriculum. The nursery, which is about two miles from the school, has 20 places and so far 17 children have enrolled.

"My only concern is the speed of things, but we have fought so long for pre-five, that this is a very exciting move forward," she said.

Altogether, provision for four-year-olds is set to more than double and 1,134 children, about 60 per cent of those entitled to a place, will have one. It is an achievement North Ayrshire believes would not have been possible in such a short time without nursery vouchers, worth an additional Pounds 693,000 to the council this year.

However, its neighbour, Labour-controlled South Ayrshire, will also manage to double its number of places this year, reaching 45 per cent coverage for all three- to five-year-olds by August, without accepting the metaphorical 30 pieces of silver. An extra 306 places will come on stream this August thanks to a council investment of Pounds 376,467.

Unsurprisingly the piloting council is anxious to stress it disagrees with the principal of nursery vouchers and has defended its position as a pragmatic one. "If the Government had proposed such a radical change in nursery education without a pilot, we would all have wanted them to run a pilot," Mr Travers said, adding that because of North Ayrshire's involvement in this first phase, it will have more influence in shaping developments.

Mr Travers believes parents will have to decide whether they value the concepts of competition and choice enough to justify the voucher system. In the meantime he fears the scheme will undermine years of co-operation with the voluntary sector. But ultimately the fate of nursery vouchers, due to be introduced throughout Scotland in 1997, will depend on the outcome of the next general election.

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