Just two education authorities are known to have applied for the Government's nursery voucher scheme by the July 31 deadline. Buckinghamshire and Wandsworth, both Tory-controlled, formally applied for the scheme's first phase next year, but no other authorities have publicly admitted any interest.
The Department for Education and Employment claims about 12 authorities have made enquiries. "There is interest from the South-east, but that is all I can say at the moment," said a spokeswoman, adding that LEAs could expect some flexibility on the deadline.
Many education authorities have been deterred by confusion over funding arrangements. In a letter explaining why Kent would not take part, John Ovenden and Allison Wainman, co-chairmen of the authority's policy and resources committee, wrote: "The implications of the voucher initiative appear to be that reception classes would have to be funded by a complex mixture of the voucher scheme and the authority's local management scheme. We are also worried that we will lose out from any recoupment arrangements (where children from other counties are educated in Kent)."
Confusion was increased this week by new figures released by the Labour party purporting to show that seven education authorities - Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Birmingham, Lancashire, Hertfordshire and Nottinghamshire - will lose more than Pounds 10 million each in the scheme.
However, the interpretation by Labour MP Steve Byers of how the scheme will work is different from the Government's and the local authorities'. The new figures were compiled for Labour by the research division of the House of Commons library.
For Essex the under-fives grant for this year is Pounds 28.85 million. The researchers have calculated that Pounds 16.33m of the Pounds 545m to be pumped into the scheme by the Government will be clawed back from the county.
For Hampshire, the clawback has been calculated at Pounds 16.23m and for Kent, Pounds 16.21m.
But DFEE officials claim authorities will not lose money unless parents choose to send their children to different under-fives establishments.