Who'll pay for the pre-five pledge?

26th September 1997 at 01:00
The Education Minister bought time by delaying for a year abolition of pre-school nursery vouchers. Judging by the statement Brian Wilson issued last week, he will need the breathing space if he is to fulfil his party's pledge of a pre-school place for every four-year-old.

The local authorities have been put back in pole position (page one). That would not have happened under the last government which emphasised the primacy of parents rather than of providers. In some ways it does not matter to whom proposals are addressed. Politics apart, it does not even matter whether the currency is parental vouchers or cash for local authorities. The challenge is to meet the target of universality, and that immediately means turning to the full range of providers and their customers. Depending on geography, local authority, pre-school playgroups or private providers hold the key to expansion.

The quirks of the existing system were illustrated by the complaint by Edinburgh that vouchers encourage parents of four-year-olds to send children to private nurseries and this is costing the council Pounds 500,000 a year. Edinburgh happens to have enough places for four-year-olds, and at the same time entrepreneurs have spotted a fruitful market, not least through offering full-time places every day of the year except Christmas and New Year. In other parts of the country scraping together all that is on offer does not amount to universal provision.

Mr Wilson's statement fails to reveal the financial relationships between local authority and other providers. Councils are told to co-operate with others, but the nature of co-operation will depend on finance. Further consultation is promised, as is research evaluation of decisions already made and those to come. But time is on no one's side. If local authorities are to expand their places, as the Government wants, they need more than exhortation. The same applies even more forcefully to the voluntary and private sectors.

Specific grant is to be the mechanism for funding local authorities. That is a welcome piece of central government dirigisme. It virtually makes pre-school provision a statutory local authority function. No longer can councils avoid commitment, as some have. No longer either can they look to the under-fives to save money to support the statutory years from 5-18. The advance in Government thinking is commendable, according as it does with ever growing evidence about the indispensability of good pre-five education and care. But, as so often, the devil remains in the financial detail affecting provision in the manifesto-implementing sense.

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