Vouchers increase places for under-fives

The nursery voucher scheme has led to an increase in places in one in six education authorities, according to a TES survey.

The survey of 67 education authorities in England and Wales supports Tory claims that vouchers boost education for four-year-olds.

But the expansion is modest and most authorities want the scheme to be scrapped. They think it is bureaucratic, unnecessary and confusing, and they deplore the arrangements for nursery inspections.

The survey, conducted the week before the scheme went nationwide on April 1, confirms fears that a huge number of four-year-olds are being educated in primary school reception classes instead of the nursery classes and nursery schools more appropriate for their age group.

Schools minister Robin Squire has said repeatedly that he did not expect the new places to be created immediately. And Labour has promised to scrap the scheme if it gains power on May 1.

But Mr Squire said: "This is a scheme that breaks new ground. It introduces significantly more funding for under-fives (Pounds 125 million this year). It puts parents in the driving seat. It prescribes a common set of skills, and it lays down a common inspection framework."

He said 285 places had been created in the voluntary sector in Norfolk alone, with 1,300 children receiving more sessions a week, and a further 800 places in the state sector.

The survey shows a modest expansion of places in Westminster, Bromley, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Devon, Walsall, Lancashire, Surrey, Wiltshire and Kent.

The trend to educate the nation's four-year-olds in reception classes is condemned by Roy Pryke, chairman of the Association of Chief Education Officers, and Sir Malcolm Thornton MP, chairman of the all-party Commons committee on education and employment.

Mr Pryke, director of education for Kent, said: "What we're seeing is the lowering of the school starting age, but it's happening piecemeal. It needs to be co-ordinated because it has implications for the demand on buildings and teacher training."

Sir Malcolm, whose committee recently completed an investigation of the nursery voucher scheme, has called for a full review of the age at which children enter early years and primary provision.

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