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Tory councils cool over vouchers

The queue formed by local authorities to join the first phase of the nursery voucher scheme is short and slow-moving, report TES staff. Only two of England's remaining five Tory education authorities have signed up for the first phase of the Government's nursery voucher scheme, it emerged this week.

And coupled with the Liberal Democrats' threatened boycott of the scheme, plus the Association of County Councils' and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' strong reservations, it is not clear which authorities, apart from Tory-controlled Buckinghamshire and Wandsworth, will be taking part in next year's trial run.

The Department for Education and Employment is being coy about the number of authorities which have applied to be part of the scheme. However, junior minister Robin Squire told delegates at the Professional Association of Teachers' conference this week that 12 education authorities were discussing vouchers with the department.

The deadline for applications for the February 1996 pilot is on Monday, and Mr Squire said it would not be extended. Tenders to run the voucher scheme must also be received by the DFEE by Monday.

Mr Squire also gave a broad hint that there might be more money for playgroups. The Preschool Learning Alliance has complained that parents using its preschools will only receive half the value of the nursery voucher - Pounds 550.

Commenting on the scheme in general, Ian Langtry, the ACC's education officer, said: "The proposals have to be seen as seriously under-developed, at best, and as impracticable, at worst."

There was dissent, too, among Conservative councillors in Brighton last week for the Council of Local Education Authorities' conference.

Geoffrey Wright, from Solihull, the leader of the AMA's Conservative group, said: "I don't think nursery should be hijacked by vouchers."

And Paul Clokie, leader of the Tory group in the London borough of Kingston, said: "Putting it into Wandsworth would be a mistake and it wouldn't prove anything. It would become a hand-out for those people who have a private place."

But Robert Gordon, from Hertfordshire, the leader of the ACC's Conservative group, said: "If parents exercise their choice and local authorities lose out, then that must say something about the quality of what local education authorities are providing."

The three other Tory-controlled education authorities, Bromley, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster are still considering the scheme.

Councillors on Surrey County Council narrowly defeated a Conservative-backed motion to join the voucher scheme. Council members against the scheme said it would damage the development of the existing nursery education policies in the county, and said they already have 86 per cent of four-year-olds in nursery schools.

Marie King-Hele, chairwoman of the education committee, felt that the Education Secretary had failed to answer too many questions and had even admitted to still having to work out details. The first Pounds 1,100 nursery vouchers for four-year-olds will be issued in pilot areas next February, and in February 1997 the vouchers will be issued to parents nationwide.

* Local authorities are trying to co-ordinate their services to young children despite the lack of a clear lead from the Government, the National Children's Bureau says in research published this week.

Eleven councils have been tracked in a five-year study of services for young children. Gillian Pugh and Susan McQuail say in Effective Organisation of Early Childhood Services that the councils were attempting to show coherence of provision across departments, despite lack of co-ordinated action from the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Health.

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