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Under-fives proposals criticised by watchdog

Labour's plans for under-fives came under fire this week, as a Government + watchdog warned that most local authorities will not hit the latest targets for+ nursery education. Counting to Five, an Audit Commission report, reveals that + many local authorities still have no clear early-years strategy, despite the + fact that the Government wants them to produce detailed proposals outlining + their under-fives service no later than February 2. All the plans must then be + approved by the Secretary of State, David Blunkett. The early-years plans are + part of the Government's wide-ranging ambitions to replace the Conservatives' + nursery vouchers scheme. Labour has set a target that every four-year-old + should have access to a free nursery place by September, 1998. There are later + deadlines for three-year-olds.However, Greg Wilkinson, Audit Commission + director of local government studies, and the report's author, said: "Several + authorities are not going to be in a position to produce the type of detailed + plans which the Government require. Too many LEAs are still not paying + sufficient attention to the private and voluntary sectors when it comes to + under-fives."During 1996, local auditors found that few authorities had + considered the role of private and voluntary providers when planning expansion.+ The impact of expanding local authority services on these providers was + largely overlooked - opening new nursery classes has in some cases led to the + loss of playgroup places. Only half the authorities reviewed had formal systems+ for consultation with the private and voluntary sectors, and in many cases LEA+ departments were failing to co-ordinate with each other and external + agencies.Mr Wilkinson said: "There was little evidence of authorities thinking + strategically. Although there are a few shining examples of good + practice,there was an overriding culture which thinks the only way to increase + places is to expand council-run provision."But parents were often happy with, + say, a local voluntary playgroup at the end of their road, and would be + dismayed if that closed down because of a new council-run centre half a mile + away. There needs to be a much more centralised approach based on what parents+ want and what provision exists."Last week, Mike Hipkins, the civil servant + with responsibility for early years, reassured voluntary playgroup providers + that any plans not appearing to have been written in full consultation would be+ "sent back" by Mr Blunkett.The report also revealed that few authorities + collected "adequate" data to assist in making sensible choices about existing + provision. Mr Wilkinson said: "Even where there are enough places, they may be + spread unevenly across an authority. The answer doesn't lie in blindly + expanding places, but finding out exactly where the gaps are." He said guessing+ the number of authorities who would follow the minister's instructions to + consult would be a "difficult one".Nursery schools on average cost 50 per cent + more than nursery classes in primary schools, but again auditors found few + authorities were making good use of the less costly facilities.

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