Nursery vouchers are to last for only a year, so why the bureaucratic listing of 2,000 centres recognised for Government grants? Labour was criticised for not scrapping the scheme immediately on taking office. Aside from the difficulty that parents had already signed up for a voucher-bearing place this autumn, ministers have given themselves a breathing space in which to assess the state and geographic spread of pre-school provision.
Because there are gaps, especially in rural areas, local authorities and other potential providers are being alerted in the hope that a year from now a higher percentage of parents will be able to find a place for their child. Research has shown that parents are not greatly concerned about how pre-school places are funded. They want a safe, secure and educational experience. On balance, most reject the idea of vouchers because the scheme came from a discredited administration and because it threatened to be cumbersome (a concern fully justified and now being tackled). Local authority provision comes out top in parental demand, but the contribution of playgroups and private enterprise is also valued.
There can be no monopolies for the under-fives. The Government's own figures show that only a variety of provision can begin to meet the target of universal education for four-year-olds and eventually for three-year-olds. The voucher scheme, trialled in four areas last session, focused attention on the age-group. It encouraged councillors to look for ways of expanding their own nurseries while condemning the then government's approach.
The Conservatives can take credit for the enthusiasm with which their political opponents tried to extend a non-statutory service at a time of educational cutbacks. Now it is not so much a case of a Labour Government reaping the reward as of facing expectations that outstrip facilities on the ground.