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Vouchers timetable snubbed

The Scottish Office this week announced its timetable for the nationwide extension of the nursery voucher scheme at the beginning of the next school session. Local authorities and the private sector promptly gave notice that they would ignore it.

The decision to delay until May the issuing of vouchers to parents of children in their pre-school year has been condemned for giving providers and parents too little time.

Parents will be sent application forms in early March, avoiding the Easter holidays. This will follow a national advertising campaign next month. The Scottish Office aims to send out a list of registered council, private and voluntary centres with the vouchers in May, two months before the new session starts.

Bob McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross and an adviser to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, predicted that councils would provisionally enrol children as soon as possible to avoid an "untenable" time-scale. Places would be confirmed once parents presented their vouchers at an approved centre.

The Scottish Office gave the green light for such a move in this week's announcement which states that "parents need not wait until they have received their vouchers before they seek a place".

Mr McKay contrasted the voucher procedure with enrolments for primary 1 children, which usually takes place in January while placing requests are dealt with by mid-February. He said: "So what we do for P1 pupils in six months, without the complication of a voucher, we are being asked to do formally in two months.

"Remember, too, that what becomes universal in August will be the vouchers not the places. What happens when there are more applications than places or where parents register in five different centres just to cover themselves?" Patricia McGinty, the head of Bishopbriggs Childcare Centre, reports that they are already fully subscribed with applications from nearly 100 parents.

Mrs McGinty, vice-convener of the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association in the west of Scotland, aims to offer a flexible programme of six different packages with three additional "little scholars" classes and five sessions over two-and-a-half days for job-share parents. "Parents here are delighted with the vouchers," she said.

Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, reiterated the Government's belief in the popularity of the policy among parents, evidenced by the 97 per cent take-up in the four pilot areas (East Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire, Argyll and Highland).

The first in a series of evaluation seminars will be organised next month by Stirling University's education department, which is conducting research into the pilot schemes. The Scottish Office confirmed this week that lessons from the study will be incorporated into the voucher extension as the timetable progresses.

Labour, which is committed to scrapping the scheme, has pledged that any child who has been issued with a voucher will be able to claim a place in August if the party wins the forthcoming general election. No further vouchers will be issued.

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