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Next week the first batch of children in the country will take up nursery places purchased with the government's ne...
Next week the first batch of children in the country will take up nursery places purchased with the government's new vouchers.

Schools minister Robin Squire hopes the following article he has written will be published to mark the occasion:

(This week) four year olds in three areas of London, and in Norfolk make education history, as pioneers in taking up nursery places under the new voucher scheme which goes nationwide in a year's time.

Children, parents and nursery providers in the Phase 1 local authorities - Westminster, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea and Norfolk - will pave the way for all local authorities in England and Wales to take part in the nursery vouchers scheme in 1997.

As with any new concept vouchers have generated some worry and scepticism. Myths have sprung up which take on a veneer of truth the more people hear them. Let me debunk the myths and dispel the fears.

Myth 1 The scheme is a flop

Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of having a first phase is to test out the practicalities and see what, if any, lessons can be learned for the nationwide scheme. I am delighted to say that the scheme is going very well in the Phase 1 local authorities despite the prophets of doom:

-- over 600 private and voluntary providers have signed up to the scheme in the four Phase 1 areas alongside local education authority and grant-maintained schools. This is more than we had predicted;

-- around 200 potential new providers in phase 1 areas and beyond have phoned our enquiry line - 0345 543 345 - expressing an interest and asking for information;

-- 95,000 'Next Steps' nursery packs have been sent out to providers - 70,000 were requested through the enquiry line; Myth 2 Local authorities will lose out If a local authority attracts more parents they will actually gain a share of the new money which the government is putting in - £390 million over three years.

The funding will follow the child. And provided they continue to recruit the same number of four year olds as they do now they will not lose out. We will only deduct the voucher value of £1,100 for the number of four year olds already in state schools from an LEA's budget. In other words local authorities will be left with any extra funding they currently spend on places that cost more than the voucher value.

Myth 3 Local authority funding for three year olds will be cut

The voucher scheme will not damage provision for three year olds.

Nothing will be deducted from the LEA's existing funding for these children. LEAs can continue to spend on them as they do now.

Myth 4 There won't be enough places to meet demand. The market will fail.

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.

We are already getting a marked response from providers and potential providers to the first phase of the scheme. Two hundred and forty private and voluntary providers, for example, have registered for the scheme in the London Phase 1 local authorities. This is on top of the 164 maintained schools which have also signed up for the scheme.

Myth 5 The scheme is a bureaucratic nightmare

It is as easy as 1 2 3 for everyone involved in the various stages.

Parents simply have to check the application form they are sent, sign it and return it in a pre-paid envelope to the voucher agency.

They then receive their voucher which they hand over to the nursery provider. The provider simply forwards them to the voucher centre for payment.

Myth 6 Cowboy operators will have a field day.

This is most definitely not an opportunity for cowboy operators out to make a quick buck. We have stressed that entry will be limited to bona fide institutions - state schools; finally registered independent schools; and private and voluntary providers which are registered under the Children Act. They will also have to undertake to work to specific learning goals, to accept inspection and to publish detailed information about themselves for parents.

Myth 7 The funding method penalises local authorities which have invested in under 5s education

We are making a substantial additional investment in a scheme which puts choice firmly in the hands of parents and not institutions. It is parents who are best placed to judge their children's needs. I am sure they will applaud the commitment to choice, quality and diversity.

LEAs are very unlikely to lose four year olds if they have invested heavily in nursery education and offer high quality service which is attractive to parents. The state sector with its experience, reputation and position as a major provider is well placed to respond to the scheme. If an LEA attracts just one more four year old it will be better off!.

Myth 8 Local authority funding for children with special educational needs will be harmed

The scheme will not affect the existing resources or provision which LEAs make for children with special educational needs. For some children the scheme could actually mean the early identification of their learning difficulties. We have made a firm commitment to consult interested parties during Phase 1 about requiring all providers to have regard to the principles of the SEN Code of Practice.

All validated providers will have to explain their SEN arrangements in their information for parents. We have also decided to give LEAs a new power to supply goods and services to providers outside the maintained sector in respect of children who have SEN and need additional support.

To sum up we want to give parents real choice. This means there must be diversity of provision - state, private and voluntary providers all have an equally important contribution to make. And we will not compromise on quality. We have already put in place learning goals for the children and the inspection system under OFSTED will ensure all providers are working towards these goals. Above all we want to give every four year old the best possible start in life and the nursery vouchers scheme is the way to do it.

Robin Squire.

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