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SHEPHARD STARTS COUNTDOWN TO NATIONAL NURSERY VOUCHERS

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Education and employment secretary Gillian Shephard today started the countdown to the nationwide nursery scheme wh...
Education and employment secretary Gillian Shephard today started the countdown to the nationwide nursery scheme which will give a voucher for £1,100 to the parents of every four year old to enable them to choose the education they want for their children. The £750m scheme will cover over 650,000 four year olds in England.

Mrs Shephard today announced: an information leaflet for parents mailed to Child Benefit claimants and available from BhS, Sainsbury's, Kwik Save, Safeway and Somerfield; an information pack aimed at nursery schools, play-groups and local authorities; and a package of in-depth research into the pilot scheme which was used in the development of the nationwide scheme.

Mrs Shephard said: 'Vouchers give parents a real choice. They take purchasing power away from bureaucrats and place it squarely in the hands of parents - the people who are best placed to make important decisions for their children. The nursery voucher scheme aims to increase the number of nursery places so that all parents who wish to can exchange their vouchers for three terms of high quality pre-school education.

'There are those who said a voucher scheme could never work. I am publishing today research which proves it does. Our findings show: the popularity and simplicity of the scheme - over 90% of parents applied for their voucher in the pilot areas; the extra money which the scheme generated for nursery education - £1.6m into private nurseries and playgroups and £2.9m into local education authority nursery classes in just one term in the four pilot areas; more nursery places for four year olds.

'Since April, the pilot areas have reported: 800 new maintained places, 285 private and voluntary places and 1,300 new sessions in Norfolk; plans for 1,000 new places in Westminster over the next 3 years; two new projects planned for Kensington and Chelsea; and an increase in the number of children attending nursery classes in Wandsworth - a borough which already guaranteed a maintained nursery place for every four year old.

'The scheme is cheap and easy to administer. 90% of parents and 60% of schools and playgroups found the scheme easy or very easy to use. The cost is less than £10 per voucher.

'The promise of a nursery place must, of course, have an assurance of quality. We have allocated some £15m for independent inspection to ensure standards. This will be the first time that the private and voluntary nursery sectors have ever been subject to a national scheme of educational inspections.

'Our experience in the pilot areas shows that parents and providers want accurate information on how the scheme operates. The parents of over 650,000 children are being targeted through television and radio advertising, an information leaflet and a helpline. All parents on the Child Benefit database should get their application form for vouchers automatically in January. Providers are being sent a pack which explains the scheme. To date we have had 75,000 calls from schools, nurseries and playgroups all interested in taking part in the scheme.

'I am particularly pleased that private industry has pledged its commitment to helping us to tell parents about the scheme. BhS, Sainsbury's, Kwik Save, Safeway and Somerfield are all going to make our parents' leaflet available to their customers; the South Western Electricity Board are going to mount an information campaign for their staff; and Thomson Directories will be featuring the nursery voucher scheme education information in their directories.

'We have scrutinised and consulted on the pilot phase of the nursery voucher scheme extensively and have made the following improvements: uniform eligibility dates; simplified administration; the extended use of school-issued application forms; all private and voluntary providers to have regard to the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice - a practical version of which is contained in the pack; and information to be sent to parents and providers much earlier than in the pilot scheme.

'The scale of the operation is colossal. My officials have been working closely with local authorities and provider groups to ensure that everyone knows how the scheme will work. They have issued information every month since April to all local education authorities, held meetings with most LEAs and spoken at a number of conferences and seminars - Nursery World exhibition, National Children's Bureau Conference, National Private Day Nurseries Association AGM and at regional conferences of Chief Education Officers. Each LEA has appointed a project manager for the introduction of the scheme and all provider interests - private, voluntary and maintained - are represented on the Implementation Advisory Group.

'All this endeavour has one aim: to give parents of four year olds the opportunity to choose. The prime minister promised nursery education for all. As from today, we begin to deliver that promise.'

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