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Vouchers give rise to private doubts

The first day of term was also the first day of the nursery pilot scheme. Linda Blackburne reports on a difficult birth.

Private nursery leaders are to hold talks with Downing Street advisers to discuss concerns over the Government's controversial nursery voucher scheme.

As pilot schemes began this week in three London boroughs and Norfolk, amid widespread opposition from headteachers, private nurseries and playgroups warned of the dangers of fees being inflated as a result of the new vouchers.

To allay their fears Dominic Morris, deputy head of the Downing Street policy unit and John Major's education adviser, asked to meet Susan Hay, chair of the Childcare Association, the professional group for private nurseries.

She will use the meeting to tell Downing Street about the private sector's concerns about vouchers, not least their fears that private providers will cut back on their service to match the value of the Pounds 1,100 voucher in an attempt to compete with state nurseries.

And she said: "I have heard 'Let's put Pounds 1,100 on the fees.' This was inevitable. I have always thought nursery vouchers were an inflationary measure, and that it would affect the policy of pricing."

Both Susan Hay and Labour are worried that the scheme will damage nursery education quality.

During a visit to a nursery school in Kensington and Chelsea, where only 55 per cent of eligible parents have applied for the Pounds 1,100 vouchers, schools minister Robin Squire said: "[Education Secretary] Gillian Shephard and I are delighted by the positive response of parents and providers in the four pilot areas. More than 1,100 schools, nurseries, pre-schools and other providers have agreed to work to the high educational standards required, and to be inspected regularly. This week's start keeps us firmly on course for the introduction of the scheme nationally next year."

Just over 80 per cent (13,346) of parents of four-year-olds have returned their voucher application forms in the four authorities, according to the Department for Education and Employment.

Norfolk has had 92 per cent returned (8,517); Wandsworth 84 per cent (2, 786); Westminster 60 per cent (1,133); and Kensington and Chelsea 55 per cent (910).

Mr Squire said the lower figures in Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea were due to London's "transient" population. He was confident the figures would rise.

And responding to criticism that there would not be enough nursery places to meet demand, Mr Squire said: "The Prime Minister pledged to provide places for all four-year-olds over time. We cannot wave a magic wand and make up the current shortfall overnight, but the scheme will have a significant impact immediately."

Parents can spend the vouchers at state or private nurseries or pre-schools. Many nursery and primary headteachers are against the scheme, and this week the Labour party announced it had sent anti-voucher campaign material to prospective parliamentary candidates and local education spokesmen and women in England and Wales.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "The scheme transforms the definition of nursery education. For the first time parents will have no guarantee that their children will be taught by qualified staff; no guarantee of the quality of provision; no guarantee that children will not be packed into cramped and inappropriate premises. The voucher scheme reduces nursery education to the lowest common denominator."

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