The Government's nursery scheme has confounded critics, according to the Education Secretary but... Local authorities were this week accused by Labour of grabbing the cash from nursery vouchers and providing little more than a child-minding service for four-year-olds.
Margaret Hodge, the party's spokeswoman for under-fives, said children were being put into reception classes of more than 30 and not given good quality education.
"Many of you are grabbing as many of the nursery vouchers as you can," she told London local authorities this week. "And because they are only worth Pounds 1,100 each you are just putting the child into reception class rather than a nursery.
"What they are getting is almost a cheap baby-minding service. That is not what nursery education is about."
Mrs Hodge spoke out as the Government this week revealed that half a million parents have already applied for nursery vouchers.
Vouchers will be issued at the end of this month in time for the April 1 nationwide launch and the remaining 150,000 eligible parents still have time to sign up for them.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, was delighted with the take-up and said: "This confounds the critics and cynics who said that the scheme was unpopular with parents and would not work.
"There were those who said that the scheme was a 'bureaucratic nightmare' - but 500,000 parents did not seem to find it so."
She welcomed, too, the first ever report from the chief inspector for schools of private and voluntary nursery education despite the Office for Standards in Education finding weaknesses in nearly half of the nurseries inspected.
It discovered that in the four pilot areas of Norfolk and the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster one in four nurseries inspected had weaknesses in maths.
Nurseries are judged on six areas of learning - personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematics, knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development.
And inspectors also found that one in five had weaknesses in language and literacy and that six out of 10 had problems in "knowledge and understanding of the world".
Just two of the 329 institutions inspected by January 1997 failed. Both were in Norfolk, where Mrs Shephard is an MP.
They are the New School kindergarten in Wroxham, which aspires to the methods of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner but is not recognised by the Steiner-Waldorf Foundation, and the Cascade nursery in Gorleston.
Mrs Hodge claimed analysis of inspection reports showed that two others in Norfolk - Walpole area playgroup in Wisbech and Gorleston Community Association playgroup in Great Yarmouth - had also showed weaknesses in all six areas but they had not failed.
"Public money is being squandered on nurseries which do not meet the very low quality threshold set by the Government," she said. "Vouchers are doing nothing to raise standards for young children."
Forty-four per cent of the nurseries will be re-examined within one to two years while 55 per cent were judged suitable for re-inspection in two to four years.
Inspectors found that general planning was better in independent schools and independent nurseries than in playgroups or similar pre-school provision.
And they said that the policy of admitting four-year-olds to reception classes needed to be kept under review to ensure that the curriculum and classroom conditions were well matched to their needs.
They added: "Mixed-age classes, however, posed particular problems of matching provision to educational needs especially where the age range was wide, for example, from young four-year-olds to six-year-olds."
OFSTED's nursery inspection reports are accessible on the Internet at: http:www.open.gov.ukofstedofsted.htm