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Another lottery

The politics of education last week swept all before them, burying what should have been the key issues.

Among the casualties was nursery education policy, the real subject of a Commons debate which instead turned into the Harriet-Harman shoot-out, and also the theme of an Audit Commission report which received little of the attention it deserved. The second reading of the Education Bill, planned to promote right-wing policies on grant-maintained status and nursery vouchers, but already attenuated by powerful opposition, should have been a triumph for Labour and anti-voucher arguments, but both were on the defensive. When the Audit Commission published its definitive report on the education of children under five at the end of the week, the rhetoric of selection was still at full blast, rivalled only by fall-out from the test results.

And yet "Counting to five" is the official report we have been waiting for. Though its findings come as no surprise to a nursery lobby which has long campaigned on similar grounds, such conclusions have just as regularly been brushed aside by a Government which has failed to commission research itself, let alone assess the likely impact of vouchers.

Though it is written in the dry language of the auditor, and examines management and efficiency as well as needs, provision and the gap between them, that only strengthens the impact of the familiar messages. Provision is so uneven that families face a lottery, rather than choice. Though some cannot find a place anywhere, elsewhere places remain empty because part-time hours don't suit working parents.

Where ministers have been sceptical about the lasting value of early-years education, the Audit Commission accepts research findings on its effectiveness: "The nursery experience could in effect bring a disadvantaged child up to the level of the average." And although the Prime Minister introduced vouchers to make good his promise to all four-year-olds because he could not bring himself to channel funding through the obvious instrument, the local authorities, the Audit Commission stresses that they must take a lead role if a voucher scheme is to succeed.

Controversially, it says that the local education authorities should stifle any defensive instinct to compete with private and voluntary providers, and instead co-operate in the interests of the children concerned. Objectively, they are right. The shortage and mismatch of places is so acute at present (particularly if three-year-olds are taken into account, as they should be) that we certainly cannot do without a private and voluntary contribution that helps match demand. But it takes two to tango, and LEAs can reasonably demand a reciprocal co-operative stance from central government.

At present it looks only too likely that the Government will need such a helping hand. In spite of its undeserved escape from the second reading debate, it has not yet won the argument and the Audit Commission's evidence will not help. Everything now rests on the feel of the Pounds 1,100 voucher in the parent's hand, what it turns out to buy and, above all, whether its existence really will trigger new provision is barren areas such as Norfolk.

Ministers' rationale may be that vouchers will prompt local authorities as well as private entrepreneurs into action. It is true that many had no strategy before for matching care and education to need, but then there was no central government policy thrust or funding either. In this we are unlike, for example, Germany where Frankfurt's decision to invest heavily in brand-new nurseries reflects national priorities (Early Years Extra, page III).

Here in Britain we are now exchanging the lottery of provision for the great vouchers gamble. What a pity the Audit Commission report came after, rather than before, the Prime Minister's plunge.

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