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Nursery vouchers to go ahead

The Nursery Education Bill received royal assent this week amid "profound disappointment" among early years experts at the failure to delay the voucher scheme until after the election.

Anti-voucher pressure groups, education authorities and teacher unions condemned the Bill, which will give all parents of four-year-olds a Pounds 1,100 voucher towards the cost of the nursery education of their choice from April next year.

A crucial Lords' amendment to the Bill on July 17 to delay implementation of the scheme until after the election failed by 275 to 251 votes. The amendment would have delayed the scheme until a full evaluation of the pilots had been laid before Parliament.

Only Iain Mills, the Tory MP for Meriden, defied the Government and voted in favour of the amendment.

Mr Mills, who this week described himself as normally a "loyal Conservative, " said he was overwhelmed by supporters congratulating him for voting against the Government at a Conservative luncheon in Marston Green, Meriden, last weekend.

Many Tory MPs told him they were sympathetic to his stance before and after the vote, he said, adding: "The Government really has got it wrong."

About 30 Tory "waverers" identified by the Campaign for State Education, including Sir Malcolm Thornton, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, voted against the amendment.

Dr Gillian Pugh, chair of the Early Childhood Education Forum, said there was "profound disappointment" among early years groups that the scheme would now go ahead.

But Melian Mansfield, a CASE national executive member, said feelings were even stronger than that: "The Government is asking for choice, but when parents have views they don't want to listen to them. All MPs and Lords have said they have had more letters on this than on anything else, yet basically nothing has changed on the Bill and people are really angry about that."

Although she didn't expect much reaction during the summer, "people will come back in September with renewed vigour".

And Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women teachers, said: "The Government seems to have reverted to its obdurate refusal to listen mode, which characterised the early days of the national curriculum with disastrous effects."

The Council for Local Education Authorities' call at its Solihull conference last week to delay the voucher scheme until a full, independent evaluation of the pilot areas had been undertaken is also likely to fall on deaf ears.

Even Norfolk, which has so far gained more from the scheme than any of the other pilot authorities, is calling into question the financial accountability of the scheme at a time when budgets are tight.

George Turner, the Labour chair of Norfolk Education Committee, believes the estimated Pounds 1 million spent on advertising and administrating the scheme could have provided an extra 300 nursery places in his county, which, historically, has been a low provider of under-fives education.

"It is dreadful that the Government does not want to evaluate the scheme when they are spending all this money," said Dr Turner, an electronics lecturer at East Anglia University.

Mr Mills will now try to persuade the Government to change the formula in the nursery voucher scheme so that high-achieving education authorities are not penalised.

However, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard believes a delay would be "unnecessary and damaging".

"The popularity of the scheme is clear," she told the House of Commons on July 17, pointing out that several amendments had been accepted, particularly on special educational needs. "More than 106,000 copies of the Department's Next Steps document have been issued. The helpline has taken more than 43,000 calls. The scheme has been warmly welcomed."

It remains to be seen whether the scheme turns out to be as popular as Mrs Shephard thinks or whether, as Iain Mills put it in March, "forcing through the scheme by April 1997 will amount to another Dangerous Dogs Act".

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