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Ooh, I know . . . Gillian is really Sybil

Do you know any millionaires? The Queen? Richard Branson? The Sultan of Brunei? Well, if any of them happen to have a four-year-old child, then do let them know that Gillian Shephard will be giving them a voucher for Pounds 1,100 out of public funds so they can, if they wish, send their nipper to an exclusive nursery school in Mayfair.

As I listened to Gillian Shephard on the radio, announcing this munificent bounty for private education, a more and more tantalising question tormented me. That voice. Who was it? It couldn't be Gillian Shephard. I thought she was far too fair-minded to line the pockets of millionaires at the expense of the poor. But which actress was playing the part?

It was infuriating. I knew the voice so well. I shut my eyes. Suddenly it was like one of those radio quizzes where you hear a snatch from a 1970s sitcom and have 10 seconds to identify the comic actor. She droned on in that slightly nasal whine. Then it came to me in a flash. Yes, of course! I should have got it straightaway, since the series is being repeated. Gillian Shephard is really Sybil Fawlty, wife of manic hotel owner Basil. You laugh, but listen carefully in future.

It's true. Educational policy has now become a Fawlty Towers series. School buildings rot, thousands of teachers are sacked, heads look at their budgets and find that they have precious little cash for new books or equipment. Meanwhile, Sybil Fawlty doles out millions of pounds of public money for wealthy parents to spend on private education.

Normally, I would not begrudge one penny piece spent on nursery education. It is scandalous that we have had to wait so long for a flicker of action by any government. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Margaret Thatcher, when Secretary of State for Education, promised a nursery place for all three and four-year-olds whose parents wanted it. Her paper was called, ironically as it turned out, A Framework for Expansion.

Now we get the first lunge. It consists of potentially the biggest handout of public money to private education since the Government came to power, bigger even than the Assisted Places Scheme.

Instead of targeting areas in desperate need of public cash for education in general, and pre-school education in particular, Sybil Fawlty shoves zillions of quid into the grateful hands of every millionaire, mansion owner, film star or water board chairman looking for an exclusive pre-prep school. It would be tragi-comedy in the best Fawlty Towers tradition, were it not too obscene to show before the 9 o'clock watershed.

What is worrying is that this is a triumph for the right-wingers in the Conservative party, who have toyed with the idea of vouchers for many years. Most sensible and fair-minded members of the party rejected the idea as being of the loony market-mad Right. It was turned down for schools in the early 1980s by the late Lord (then Sir Keith) Joseph, and also rejected in the later 1980s for higher education. This current flirtation with the market philosophy of the far Right looks like being the thin end of what could be a very fat wedge, one that, driven far enough, would eventually signal the end of free education.

It is odd how the voucher scheme has translated from a left-wing to a right- wing idea as it crossed the Atlantic. The system of vouchers was first tried more than 20 years ago in Alum Rock, San Jose, California, a poor area where half the pupils were Mexican-American. It was designed to give fairer opportunities to disadvantaged children. Poor children's parents actually received more money than the rest. No "topping-up" was allowed, so the better- off could not get preferment for school places.

Anyone tempted to believe that vouchers offer a Utopian solution should read the evaluation of the voucher experiment in America. The scheme was carefully monitored by the Rand Corporation. The research conclusions were that voucher classrooms were strikingly similar to non-voucher classrooms. The bureaucracy was such that teachers were buried under an avalanche of meetings. Worse still, there were no differences in educational standards, so eventually the scheme was scrapped.

Now that John Major has been re-elected leader and can only stay in power with the support of the right-wingers, it is quite clear that voucher plans are being offered so he can flash his right-wing market credentials at his critics. It has not been widely noted, but in the manifesto that he produced during the leadership election, Major also promised to increase incentives for schools to opt out, so look out for further bribes and what his supporters were calling barmy right-wing "swivel-eyed" policies, as he frantically clings to power.

One even more tantalising question remains. If Gillian Shephard is Sybil Fawlty, then who is Basil, now that the brilliant John Cleese has retired from the role? Well, that much is obvious. It must be John Major himself. He has taken over education policy during the past few years. Think about it - the spidery angularity, the sudden switches from ashen-faced correctness to manic craziness, the strangulated tenor voice. All right, so he has grey hair and glasses, and appears calmer, but then it is 20 years since Fawlty Towers was made. Major is post-menopausal Basil. Basil is the mad one. Sybil appears reasonable by comparison.

And if this re-make of Fawlty Towers is really an allegory of loony right-wing ideas in education, then Michael Portillo, tipped to succeed Major, might as well play the part of Manuel the waiter. Going round in total bewilderment, saying "Qu+e?" and "I know nothing", just about sums up the whole Fawlty Towers scenario.

So don't forget to tell King Croesus, if you see him, about his eleven hundred quid windfall. It could be the first of many more from Basil and Sybil.

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