How sad it is that an idea the principle of which was universally welcomed should in practice be universally rejected. It is not just disappointment that the promised "new" money for the Government's nursery voucher scheme is for the most part existing education authority funding recycled; nor is it any objection to the voluntary and private sectors playing a full part in the expansion of early-years education.
Rather, it is that a scheme whose implementation now appears to have more to do with current political correctness than educational opportunity will put at risk much of the excellent nursery education provided in the maintained sector; will see money spent on administration rather than the classroom; and will produce planning chaos that will frustrate rather than enhance the objective of parental choice.
There is a danger that vouchers will unleash market forces whose main interest is commercial gain. Quality assurance will be patchy. New places may not be located in the areas of greatest need, even if the conundrum of how to fund capital work, such as new nurseries, can be resolved. The concept of co-operation between institutions and progression of learning experiences for children are to be sacrificed on the altar of competition.
The education authorities in the pilot that starts next spring are hardly enthusiastic volunteers. They cannot be called representative of the country at large. The trail they will blaze is hardly likely to produce all the answers for a universally workable and acceptable model. The pilot could turn out to be an expensive irrelevance.
So, is there a better way to promote a scheme to which everyone is committed? And what should such a scheme's criteria be? There needs to be: * coherent planning; * co-operation between maintained, voluntary and private sectors; * adequate revenue and capital funding; * a properly-defined curriculum and assessment framework; * a supportive quality assurance system; * planned educational progression; * priority given to areas of particular need; * minimal bureaucracy.
The starting point has to be to build upon existing provision and good practice.
Let the Secretary of State require each local authority - whom both she and the Prime Minister have acknowledged to have a major responsibility for securing provision and quality - to produce a nursery education plan. That plan must be negotiated with providers in the maintained, voluntary and private sectors. No one sector must have a right of monopoly, and the authority must be the provider of last resort.
Programmes for curriculum and staff development will be based on agreed criteria for learning outcomes and staff qualifications. A quality assurance regime should be instituted locally which embraces both educational and Children Act requirements.
HM Inspectorate will moderate the effectiveness of each local partnership in delivering its service and monitoring and improving its quality. Emphasis will be placed on targeting new resources on areas of special need or deprivation. Capital funding must be allocated to help provide additional places, either through creating new ones or through adapting existing surplus capacity.
The change of emphasis in this alternative model is slight but significant. It builds upon achievement; it encourages co-operation; it secures progression and quality; it meets need; it is cost-effective; it will command support.
Why not try it out alongside the Government's model and see which one makes the most progress?
Keith Anderson is chairman of the Standing Conference of Chief Education 0fficers.