What next for nursery places;Comment;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
It was hardly criticism as endured by education ministers in the last Government, but Brian Wilson had to take mild flak last week when he announced that nursery vouchers are to survive for a year. Political opponents - that is, those in other parties who had campaigned alongside Labour against vouchers - accused him of reneging on an election commitment. But common sense is on Mr Wilson's side.

The Conservatives had rushed ahead and encouraged parents to register for the autumn intake of four-year-olds. Analysing the results of the pilot scheme took second place to using the voucher scheme as an election ploy. Labour was accused of seeking to rob parents of their pound;1,100 entitlement. The result is that the scheme is under way for the coming session. To stop it in its tracks would lead to confusion. Over-bureaucratic it may be, but the paperwork needed to unravel it overnight and still give children a guaranteed place would have added to the problems.

The new Government has a breathing space in which to consider the implications of its main policy, which is to use the voucher money to offer all four-year-olds a nursery place. Leaving aside doubts about whether the cash will be sufficient, the Scottish Office has to tackle practical problems. If the emphasis is to be on local authority provision, how will councils be encouraged to open classes and find teachers? Conservatives might have made more of the fact that the existence of vouchers prodded some councils into making more places available.

What will be the Government's attitude to the voluntary sector and to private providers, whose numbers have greatly increased especially in the leafy suburbs? The voucher scheme, for which 600 centres have registered, encouraged diversity as a means of attaining complete coverage. Will an alternative funding structure canted towards the needs of councils discriminate against other centres, even unintentionally?

Mr Wilson plans to consult widely. He cannot afford to end up with a level of provision inferior to that potentially available with a voucher. Surveys showed that for parents it was the chance of a pre-school place that mattered and not the way it could be obtained.

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