Labour's plans for under-fives came under fire this week, as a Government watchdog warned that most local authorities will not hit the latest targets for nursery education.
Counting to Five, an Audit Commission report, reveals that many local authorities still have no clear early-years strategy, despite the fact that the Government wants them to produce detailed proposals outlining their under-fives service no later than February 2. All the plans must then be approved by the Secretary of State, David Blunkett.
The early-years plans are part of the Government's wide-ranging ambitions to replace the Conservatives' nursery vouchers scheme. Labour has set a target that every four-year-old should have access to a free nursery place by September, 1998. There are later deadlines for three-year-olds.
However, Greg Wilkinson, Audit Commission director of local government studies, and the report's author, said: "Several authorities are not going to be in a position to produce the type of detailed plans which the Government require. Too many LEAs are still not paying sufficient attention to the private and voluntary sectors when it comes to under-fives."
During 1996, local auditors found that few authorities had considered the role of private and voluntary providers when planning expansion. The impact of expanding local authority services on these providers was largely overlooked - opening new nursery classes has in some cases led to the loss of playgroup places.
Only half the authorities reviewed had formal systems for consultation with the private and voluntary sectors, and in many cases LEA departments were failing to co-ordinate with each other and external agencies.
Mr Wilkinson said: "There was little evidence of authorities thinking strategically. Although there are a few shining examples of good practice, there was an overriding culture which thinks the only way to increase places is to expand council-run provision.
"But parents were often happy with, say, a local voluntary playgroup at the end of their road, and would be dismayed if that closed down because of a new council-run centre half a mile away. There needs to be a much more centralised approach based on what parents want and what provision exists."
Last week, Mike Hipkins, the civil servant with responsibility for early years, reassured voluntary playgroup providers that any plans not appearing to have been written in full consultation would be "sent back" by Mr Blunkett.
The report also revealed that few authorities collected "adequate" data to assist in making sensible choices about existing provision. Mr Wilkinson said: "Even where there are enough places, they may be spread unevenly across an authority. The answer doesn't lie in blindly expanding places, but finding out exactly where the gaps are." He said guessing the number of authorities who would follow the minister's instructions to consult would be a "difficult one".
Nursery schools on average cost 50 per cent more than nursery classes in primary schools, but again auditors found few authorities were making good use of the less costly facilities.