Voucher deal wins over wary council

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Norfolk has agreed to pilot the Government's nursery funding scheme, but critics remain dubious. Linda Blackburne reports

Norfolk has provisionally agreed to pilot the nursery voucher scheme after winning two important concessions from the Government.

The Department for Education and Employment has agreed that parents should pay their Pounds 1,100 vouchers to the authority and not direct to Norfolk's nursery classes.

This means the authority, which is in Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's constituency, can allocate the voucher money under its local management of schools scheme.

Norfolk, which currently has relatively few nursery places, is also "very hopeful" that it has persuaded the department to relax its capital expenditure borrowing restraints so that it can build or adapt some new nursery classes.

And the council has negotiated an escape clause in the event of it wanting to pull out of the scheme.

Michael Edwards, Norfolk's county education officer, said the LEA could still pull out if it was not happy with the progress of talks with the Department for Education and Employment.

The concessions won by Norfolk may now encourage other councils to join the pilot. So far the only other authorities to sign up are the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.

Buckinghamshire will decide at the end of this month whether to join the scheme.

Meanwhile a Conservative MP wants the Government to make the scheme discretionary. Iain Mills, MP for Meriden in the West Midlands, is urging ministers to allow local education authorities to opt out of the scheme when it is introduced nationally in 1997.

He believes that the scheme,which will give all parents of four-year-olds a Pounds 1,100 voucher to spend at maintained or private nurseries or playgroups, will be potentially disastrous for councils where nursery provision is already good, such as Solihull in his constituency.

Mr Mills has tabled a parliamentary question calling for the scheme to be discretionary when it is introduced throughout the country in 1997. He said: "It is a blunt instrument and applied to places like Solihull would be a potential disaster.

"I had at my last surgery four delegations, each of six people. I have had 100 letters and 20 telephone calls. There are an awful lot of worried parents and people."

Chief education officers are to discuss proposals for an alternative scheme with Peter Shaw, the new civil servant in charge of nursery education, at a private conference next week.

Their alternative (TES, October 27) would require every authority to produce a nursery education plan which would be negotiated by the main providers in the state, voluntary and private sectors.

* A national programme of nursery education and day care for all three and four-year-olds would cost the Exchequer about Pounds 2.7 billion, according to a new report published by the National Children's Bureau.

Economist Sally Holtermann said the programme, which would combine a free educational element with a day care element funded by means-tested fees, would easily be paid for by the income tax and national insurance contributions paid by mothers who have gone back to work in the past 10 years.

She estimated that a national programme of public subsidies for day care to meet parental demand in Britain would cost Pounds 1.66bn at 1995-96 prices.

This figure assumes that the state would meet half the running costs of registered services and parents would pay fees on a sliding scale related to their income.

Ms Holtermann estimated that another Pounds 1.02bn to Pounds 1.06bn, depending on whether the provision is a mixture of state and private or all state, would be needed to provide nursery education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. Both calculations allow for about Pounds 60m to bring the staff:child ratios for under-fives in infant classes to those of nursery schools.

Four years ago she claimed that between Pounds 3.5bn and Pounds 4bn for day care and Pounds 0.5bn for nursery education would be needed for a national programme.

Her new costings in the NCB report, Investing in Young Children: a reassessment of the cost of an education and day care service, is an update of a report published by the bureau in 1992.

The lower Pounds 2.7 billion estimate is based on new information from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and assumption that parents would pay half the day care costs. In 1991, she assumed parents would pay only a third.

But Ms Holtermann warned that there was a wide margin of error in the figures because of the high degree of uncertainty about the pattern of women's future employment and demand for day care.

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