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How vouchers are working

Sally Brown, Lesley Low and Christine Stephen report some early findings of their research into the pilot schemes

A high-profile enterprise like the voucher initiative for pre-school provision inevitably engenders strong feelings. The pressure on our research group at Stirling University, which has the responsibility for the national evaluation of the scheme, to provide information at the earliest possible moment on how things have gone is intense. At this time we have few findings which we can with confidence offer to the public or the politicians; the initiative has been in place for only one term and we have collected limited data. On February 7, however, we are spending a day with various interested parties, including the local evaluators from the four pilot schemes in Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire, Highland and North Ayrshire. National and local evaluators will share preliminary findings from our various perspectives, and explain how these will develop over the rest of the pilot year.

For our part, we will report on an initial exploratory part of our research which has involved interviews with 102 pre-school providers in the pilot areas and 116 parents who have taken up vouchers. Because the Scottish Office has been particularly concerned to have data from private and voluntary sector providers, the sample is heavily biased towards those sectors although some local authority providers are included. The parents' sample, however, reflects the balance of provision in all three sectors.

We have concentrated in our preliminary analysis on what might be called "operational matters" because that has been the Scottish Office's priority. Many other aspects of our research still have to be explored. In providing a brief summary of our findings in this article, we have to hedge around with all the usual researchers' warnings about treating what we have to say with caution - the kind of caveats that so irritate policy-makers and practitioners who want answers now.

Among pre-school providers, registration for vouchers has been given to all those designated by the local authorities, but to fewer than half of those in the private and voluntary sectors - from 19 per cent to 46 per cent in the four pilot areas. The proportion of parents taking up vouchers, however, has been high: the lowest figure in any of the pilot areas was more than 96 per cent of those eligible. Most, between 59 per cent and 74 per cent, had taken advantage of local authority provision and a very high proportion of children attended for the full five sessions each week at only one centre.

In only one of the more rural areas was there a significant number of cases where children attended at more than one centre or for fewer than five sessions; much of this was in the private and voluntary sector. There was some evidence that the increases in provision had the effect of enabling children to spend more time in nursery or playgroup than they otherwise might have done, rather than of substantially increasing the numbers of children having any kind of pre-school provision.

There has been a series of procedures through which providers have had to weave. Perhaps the most important of these were the initial Profile of Education Provision, required before registration was granted by the Scottish Office, and HMI inspection at a later stage. While neither of these presented great problems for the local authority providers, both had some daunting aspects, especially for those in the voluntary sector.

Complaints about the profile's length, unfamiliarity, use of jargon and repetition were common, and many were perplexed about how they were expected to respond to HMIs' comments. In the end, however, there was some consensus that the profile and inspection had value in helping to establish what was expected of high quality provision, even if a significant number of providers were deterred from applying.

For those who did become registered, there was some heavy paperwork and other routine duties. In particular, considerable efforts were put into helping parents sort our their various problems and in the administration, collection and financial reimbursement of the vouchers themselves. Of the greatest concern to the voluntary and private sector was the delay in receiving income from redeemed vouchers. A substantial number found themselves unable to pay salaries and meet other bills without going into overdraft or seeking loans from their families. Such problems are significant sources of stress. However, we should place on record the positive comments made about the helpline.

It was clear that the effects of the voucher scheme were regarded by parents as having substantial benefits. The advantages of not having to wait or pay for a place, being offered five sessions (approximately half days) each week and introducing their children to routines and opportunities for types of learning or play not available at home were all greatly appreciated. The new authority figures and discipline were seen as preparing the children for school, alleviating boredom and helping in the development of new skills. Parents themselves put particular value on gains in the form of reductions in family stress levels and opportunities to give more time to shopping, younger children or elderly relatives. There was virtually no evidence, however, of the pre-school provision making it possible for parents, especially mothers, to move into, or back to, formal employment.

Our evaluation was not designed to assess the quality of provision. At a general level, however, it was suggested that providers in the voluntary sector were putting substantially greater emphasis on structured activities and more formal learning. In doing this, they were aligning themselves more closely with local authority providers where fewer changes were evident. There was, however, a growing reluctance on the part of parents to take on playgroup duties or become involved in raising funds, activities which previously would have had their support.

Only a very small minority of parents expressed disapproval of the voucher scheme in principle. For the most part the focus was on welcoming the increased provision, with scant interest in the mechanisms, voucher or otherwise, by which it was brought about. Private and voluntary providers, however, were conscious of extra paperwork. Their preference would have been for direct reimbursement from the Government based on the numbers of children enrolled by each provider, and some parents suggested a scheme of one voucher per term would have been preferable.

The relationships between local authorities and the other sectors did not appear to have deteriorated in any major way. However, where local authority provision had significantly increased, together with the preference of a majority of parents for the local authority sector, there have been examples of private and voluntary providers having to close or to refocus their activities on three-year-olds. On the other hand, there were also cases where activities such as joint training had improved the links between the sectors, and parents were particularly eager to maintain collaboration between playgroups and primary schools. We expect to have more to say on this after we have completed our survey of 1,000 parents and returned to 31 "case study" providers in the three sectors.

* Professor Sally Brown is deputy principal of Stirling University. Lesley Low and Christine Stephen are researchers in the education department.

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