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Voucher chaos disturbs the peace

An elderly woman knits on the seafront. Boats bob. A shop on the prom sells nougat and rock to a few tourists. It's Wells-next-the-Sea on a Monday lunchtime.

Not far from the Lifeboat pub, at the north Norfolk town's pre-school playgroup the noise of children learning through play has for 25 years gently broken the tranquillity. But now it's the politicians who are disturbing the peace.

Desperate to find education authorities to pilot its controversial nursery voucher scheme, the Department for Education and Employment persuaded Norfolk to take part in phase one, but not before the county had squeezed Pounds 1 million out of the Government to build 25 nurseries. So next to the wooden hut which is the pre-school playgroup's home, a new nursery classroom for Wells-next-the-Sea primary school is being built.

The new unit, which will be offering 52 half-time places to three and four-year-olds, is forcing the playgroup to fight for survival. This bitter battle is being waged by countless playgroups across the country as local education authorities compete with private nurseries and playgroups for the nation's four-year-olds and their vouchers worth Pounds 1,100 each.

Norfolk County Council and Clive Sedgewick, headteacher of Wells primary school, are adamant that the existing playgroup should survive, but the playgroup itself believes it is a victim of an ill-thought-out scheme which will devastate its roll while hundreds of voucher-waving children elsewhere in Norfolk will have nowhere to go. Playgroup leader Sandra Thompson has tried to enlist the support of Norfolk education committee, Sir Ralph Howell, MP for Norfolk North, and Gillian Shephard, Education and Employment Secretary and MP for Norfolk South West.

"We find it difficult to appreciate why a good quality, self-financing provision on a school site should be replaced by a unit costing the taxpayer greatly," says one of the playgroup's letters.

Mr Sedgewick, who works closely with the playgroup, said: "The playgroup has definitely come off worse than we would have wanted. For 25 years it has been absolutely brilliant for the school, and we would want to recognise the sterling work it has done. But the future provision will be enhanced by this new nursery unit being here ... If the playgroup tries to compete, it will wither away. There has to be a willingness to adapt. There are other options, for example day care provision. There will only be half-time places in the nursery but some parents might want full-time provision."

The playgroup, which charges fees, accepts nursery vouchers, and is looking forward to its first Office for Standards in Education inspection with confidence, will find it near impossible to compete with a new free nursery on its doorstep.

But it has one big advantage: there are four staff for every 26 children while there will only be two - the legal minimum under the Children Act- in the new nursery.

The council, the primary school and the playgroup are negotiating over numbers and the nursery's intake. The nursery wants to take three and four-year-olds. But if the playgroup agrees, it will only have 10 two-year-olds left out of a full roll of 55, and the waiting list is empty. If the school agrees to take only four-year-olds, it will not be viable either, although it does not expect all its places to be filled on day one.

The playgroup is upset that Norfolk did not consult it before deciding to put the nursery on its doorstep. The county concedes that point but says one of its main objectives was to have a nursery unit in every secondary school catchment area. As Norfolk is a rural county, sites have to have good public transport. It is encouraging the playgroup to apply for a grant to help it over the difficult transition period. The under-fives population is expected to rise over the coming years and the school and the county argue that eventually both the unit and the playgroup will be needed.

* Scores of nurseries are opening their doors to the public next week to celebrate National Early Learning Week.

The week, which has been organised by The British Association for Early Childhood Education, is intended to show off the best in nursery education. Child care guru Dr Penelope Leach, and Kathy Sylva, professor of child development and primary education at London University's Institute of Education are among the speakers at a BAECE conference on Tuesday in Nottingham funded by Boots, which will focus on the need to invest in pre-school children and the promotion of parenting skills.

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