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Parental choice 'not likely to be enhanced'

A voucher system for four-year-olds would be unlikely to enhance either parental choice or levels of service, and could undermine Government spending policies, warns a draft discussion paper prepared for the Early Childhood Education Forum, an umbrella group representing 35 organisations.

"One of the aims of voucher schemes is to stimulate a market of services, " says the paper, prepared by Julia Bennett, principal officer for education at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. "The acknowledged problem of voucher schemes is that of 'dead weight', which occurs where those who can now afford to (and choose to) pay 100 per cent of the cost of private provision subsequently use their entitlement to a voucher to part-pay for the same service.

"It is likely that this will lead either to increased public expenditure to fund no net increase in provision; to the same level of funding with a net decrease in the volume of provision; or to the transfer of public subsidy from the poor to the rich (much existing state nursery provision is targeted at the needy), which is the most likely outcome."

The paper also points out that "the range of current early years provision does not lend itself easily to a set of definable characteristics for which vouchers can be used."

It says vouchers do not on their own put in place an infrastructure, or cover start-up costs or capital costs. There would be an increase in "absolute bureaucracy" to administer them, to plan and to ensure quality.

The paper asks: "To whom would parents apply for their vouchers, and with whom would they redeem them? Would the introduction of vouchers give rise to the development of another quango and its associated costs, with the now familiar dilemma of where the responsibility for the planning of places rests?"

The Primary Education Study Group, an ad hoc collection of educationists, is writing to the Department for Education with additional concerns. It will warn that a voucher system could lead to divisiveness, with schools and nurseries working in competition rather than in co-operation.

Planning would become difficult for schools and playgroups because the numbers of children would be unpredictable. They are also worried about how progression from pre-school to school would be organised and how quality would be guaranteed throughout the system.

Low-value vouchers could lead to the closure of high-quality maintained nursery classes and schools, which would be replaced with something cheaper, they note.

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