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Row over changes to voucher research

The Government's handling of the contract to evaluate the politically sensitive pilot for nursery vouchers has led to a protest by the body representing education researchers. Brian Morris, president of the Scottish Educational Research Association, complains that the contract was virtually promised to one team and then offered to another.

Mr Morris describes the Scottish Office procedure as "now you see it, now you don't". A Moray House Institute team directed by Professor Pamela Munn was led to believe that its bid for the Pounds 50,000 research contract into the operation of the pilot scheme in four local authorities had been successful.

But then officials changed the nature of the exercise, asking for more of an economic slant and a comparison between nursery expansion in local authorities involved in the pilot and those outside it. At that point one of the unsuccessful bidders, a Stirling University group under Professor Sally Brown, was asked to tender again.

Stirling has done so by involving a university economist to meet the Scottish Office's insistence that "negative additionality" be considered. That is understood to mean reference to the effect on nursery numbers brought about by decisions like South Ayrshire's to invest outwith the Government scheme. Stirling says that an extra Pounds 10,000 would be needed to extend the research remit.

Mr Morris, a member of the Stirling team as well as SERA president, has asked for clarification of the procedures. He states in a letter to Martyn Roebuck, chief inspector in charge of the Research and Intelligence Unit, that researchers are concerned that specifications are drawn up and then changed. Those interested in making a bid can find themselves on "a fishing expedition" for information. "We are keen that the RIU does more by way of consultation before specifications are sent out," Mr Morris said.

Professor Munn said she was now in "a complete fog". Fieldwork would have to be complete by next Easter to meet the August 1997 deadline for completion.

On the original short leet as well as Moray House were the Scottish Consumer Council and the accountancy firm Coopers and Lybrand. Five other organisations had been invited to tender.

A Scottish Office spokesman said on Wednesday: "We are still actively considering the tenders. Once a decision has been made, we will respond to SERA's letter."

Nursery charges, page 3

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