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First steps on road to a better deal

Michael Stoten writes in praise of the Government's controversial nurdery vouchers.

Now that the hysteria season on nursery vouchers is on us again it is timely to articulate the virtues of this excellent idea. I do so from a position of strength because when invitations were sent out for local authorities to take part in phase 1 of the scheme I was fortunate enough to work for one of the few authorities which had the foresight to see the opportunities it presented.

Kensington and Chelsea was able to shrug off the sillier allegations about us getting in there early - bribes, ennoblement and so on - and dealt summarily with the typical objections of the opposition party and the unions, which were to highlight supposed operational problems because they couldn't think of any convincing argument to disagree with the policy itself. What they really meant of course was that they didn't want to consort with the nasty old private sector - somewhat at odds with the present political stance.

We saw that it was essential to be involved in phase 1 (phase 1, mark you, this was not a pilot scheme) because we knew there would be practical difficulties, particularly within a local authority with more than a hundred first languages and a very high turnover of population, including refugees, migrants and homeless. We recognised that you don't abandon a good thing just because of a few problems along the way. The advantages were clear to us, the scheme was intrinsically sound and on that basis there was every reason to find ways of making it work properly. It is well on the way to doing so, granted with a lot of effort from all concerned, but the rewards could well be very substantial indeed.

We therefore took the opposite stance to most other authorities but we didn't just dismiss the practical problems as being of no account. It's interesting that many of the fears expressed by our detractors were never realised. For example, we were never concerned that there might be a migration of children from our own provision to the new providers. We had faith that parents would want the quality of education in them and an establishment through which their children could pass their primary years. We were sufficiently confident that if we funded schools up front and redeemed the vouchers ourselves: we had no reason to change our local management of schools scheme but even if we had, so what? Nor could it be said that we were taking advantage of being a low provider of places to begin with. Half of the four-year-olds in Kensington and Chelsea are educated privately and there are state places for a very substantial proportion of the rest.

We did though expect take-up of vouchers to be quite low in the first year because of the character of the area. So it proved, although getting on for 70 per cent was higher than I expected and it was higher still in the other participating authorities. It did demonstrate how right elected members in the participating authorities were to take part in phase 1 so that we could use our very practical experience to influence the Department for Education and Employment in all aspects of the scheme second time round, particularly in getting the message across to parents. In fact it became evident that the lowest take-up would probably be in the private sector in those schools that didn't want to get tangled up with DFEE and who had parents willing to pay their full fees, vouchers notwithstanding. Within the state sector I'm entirely satisfied that as things settle down everyone eligible will soon find their way to a voucher; they seem to manage other parts of the benefit system well enough.

And so to the real advantage of the scheme which is quite simply that it presents the most effective way of making universal provision for all four-year-olds and soon, I hope, three-year-olds as well. Despite what the Jeremiahs say about administrative costs (and I do have a little sympathy with that view in national terms; locally the cost was quite small) it also represents the most economical way forward because it makes use of what is substantially already there and it has the potential to make use of funds which don't have to affect the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. I don't care which party is in power, none of them will be able to afford the kind of education service everyone wants as long as they are locked into the dogma that only the state can provide state education. My thesis is just the opposite. Why should the service wear political blinkers? Why should people not have the choice and why should we not make use of what the private sector has to offer?

There are of course prerequisites to such fundamental change, not least with nursery vouchers the quality of education in the establishments concerned: state, private or voluntary. The desirable outcomes currently required are not yet desirable enough, but it seems to me stupid and arrogant to seek to reinvent the wheel - at huge cost - when a variety of providers may already be offering a satisfactory alternative and many of those which are not yet may need little to reach an adequate standard. Such an approach is not about to devalue teachers in the state sector because parents will continue to queue to get into them if they compete for punters with money in their hands. This will have the effect of driving up quality and this will include a demand by parents for properly qualified staff.

The other great virtue, of major financial importance, is the opportunity vouchers present to attract private finance to provide additional places. There is, frankly, little chance of money being made available, particularly in capital terms, to finance a universal nursery scheme within the present system and really there is no need. The choice available already is one factor, but the security which a voucher system offers makes it very attractive to inward private sector investment. A range of options presents itself, from buying in places in the independent sector, to jointly-managed schemes right through to straight commercial in-and-out investment. My own view is that this is the beginning of a new era in managing and funding education and the nursery voucher system can mark the beginning of a genuine change in the way state education is provided.

For all the huffing and puffing, I haven't seen much in the way of an alternative to emerge. The time is right for all the political parties to take a long hard look at reality and recognise that this scheme could be an early step on the road to a better deal for all young people.

Michael Stoten was formerly director of education for the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea

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