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Risky vouchers

The riskiness of the Government's nursery voucher policy becomes harder to conceal with each new stage in its development. Last week the pilot scheme had to be launched, behind schedule, with only three inner London boroughs signed up, rather than the promised national sample covering 10 per cent of all four-year-olds.

This week the National Campaign for Nursery Education's Parliamentary lobby provided some of the reasons why, as well as a high-profile public platform for the growing and bitter opposition to the scheme. And, significantly for Ministers who have complained that ideological opposition is putting a brake on participation in the pilot, some of the fiercest opposition is coming from Conservative councillors.

Prominent among these has been Geoffrey Wright of Solihull, the country's longest-serving education chairman, whose opposition to the voucher scheme has been earlier reported in this paper, and who has now joined with eight other Tory council spokesmen to warn Gillian Shephard of the risks involved.

A central worry for all local authorities is how far vouchers will destabilise existing nursery classes or even primary schools. It is not just fear of competition from private nurseries. Once the money already spent on the education of four-year-olds in any given authority is top-sliced from their funding in favour of the voucher agency, LEA nurseries will lose out even if parents choose not to spend their vouchers at all.

In Buckinghamshire which, like Norfolk, may join in the pilots if it can get a compromise deal with the Department for Education and Employment, the concern is slightly different. Here the policy is to concentrate nursery classes in particular primary schools, so the authority is negotiating for voucher money earned in such classes to be spread among other primary schools in the group. The more such arrangements are made, of course, the more pointless a voucher scheme becomes, but unpicking the complexities of local finance was precisely the exercise that should have been conducted before any voucher scheme was proposed.

So it won't do now for the vouchers lobby simply to characterise the opposition as an ideological objection to competition. The point to remember about choice and diversity is that they can only come fully into play if the provision is there in the first place. At present the supply of nursery places is so patchy, fragmented and ill-matched to need that we have diversity without choice, and no Government commitment to the sort of strategy or funding that would allow genuine choice.

We are so far short of adequate provision that we need all the local authority, voluntary and private provision we have got and can get. It would be folly for anyone to eliminate players from the game. The danger of vouchers is that they threaten LEA nurseries without convincing anybody that the private sector will find a voucher income sufficiently worthwhile to provide nursery schools worth having.

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