Hard sell gets a soft response
On July 6 Gillian Shephard's newly-formed Department for Education and Employment announced the launch of the "nationwide pre-school plan, a Pounds 730 million voucher scheme to give purchasing power to parents". The scheme to give parents of all four-year-olds vouchers worth Pounds 1,100, will begin in a small batch of local authorities in April next year and throughout the country a year later.
Payments, administered by a private company, will begin in the term after the child's fourth birthday, and cover the two subsequent terms. The vouchers will, says Gillian Shephard, "place power in the hands of parents".
But with more than three-quarters of four-year-olds in state education, the majority of vouchers will literally be returned to the state in "part payment" for a place, rather than giving parents purchasing power.
For instance, in Lancashire, all children are offered a full-time reception place from the beginning of the school year in which they reach their fifth birthday, so some are in school for three terms before reaching the statutory school age of five.
Leslie MacDonald, a parent at Pendle County Primary, a popular maintained school in the small town of Clitheroe, feels that vouchers are a "good idea". With six children, only one of whom had a state nursery place, paying for playgroup facilities for the remaining five has been a costly business. But since her daughter, Sarah, started school shortly after turning four, the voucher would only pay for something which is, she suggests, "free anyway". She feels that a scheme which covers three-year-olds would be of more help, contributing, for instance, to termly playgroup fees of up to Pounds 48. But, she adds, plans for a voucher scheme are at least a "beginning", showing some government support for the under-fives.
The teacher in charge of early years at Pendle County, Barbara King, a reception teacher with more than 30 years experience, views quality pre-school provision as a vital part of child development, but thinks the voucher scheme will have little impact on local provision - it will be more likely to give parents purchasing power in their choice of primary school. She says that while the school would welcome voucher-holding children, many primaries could face complex access and funding issues.
Other parents at Pendle have little knowledge of the scheme, saying that it isn't directed at them anyway, as it is intended for pre-school children. Few are aware the vouchers will be issued only to parents of four-year-olds.
If the scheme were up and running, the parents of the 16 reception children at Pendle with autumn birthdays would be able to make use of two terms worth of voucher money in the pre-school sector, gaining about Pounds 370 per term to cash in at a playgroup, private school (or state nursery school place).
With this kind of financial help, several parents say they would probably purchase some form of private provision. However, others say this depends on having the resources to "top up" voucher payments.
Parents whose children attend St Mary's playgroup, based in a church hall not far from Pendle Primary, favour a voucher scheme, although again many know few details. But they feel limiting it to four-year-old means it will have little effect on them.
"Many parents have real problems affording care," says Amanda, one of the leaders. At present, her own two-year-old twins attend alternate playgroup sessions, but she hopes at some stage to be able to afford the Pounds 6 a week each.
She sees current voucher proposals as offering little help - the twins have their birthday in January, so she will get funding for only one term, before they take up maintained school places. Like many parents locally, she hopes the twins will gain part-time places at one of the two authority nurseries when they are three.
The wider implications for the playgroup itself are, at best, unclear. At the beginning of the autumn term none of the children was four. The three oldest children have birthdays in the spring term, meaning that, at most, the playgroup will attract one term's worth of voucher funding from only three of its group.
Parents and playgroup organisers are also confused about government inspection and accreditation of facilities. They are afraid the costs of any needed improvements will be passed on to parents.
Several parents, who are happy with the current standard of provision, feel it is pointless being accredited for vouchers if virtually no voucher-holding four-year-olds use the facilities. It is a situation which puts groups like St Mary's in a rather ambiguous position.
Independent Moorland School for all children up to 16, located in spacious grounds on the outskirts of Clitheroe, has a Pounds 600-a-term nursery wing catering for working parents with 8.30am to 5pm opening hours and a baby unit.
For these parents, vouchers worth Pounds 1,l00 would represent a significant financial contribution. Those sending their children on to private primary education will feel the full financial benefit of vouchers for all three terms, since vouchers will subsidise their children's reception education until after their fifth birthday.
But headteacher Janet Harrison points out that parents in the Ribble Valley have traditionally had a wide range of quality state schools from which to choose. So, at least locally, vouchers are unlikely to increase private sector intakes dramatically.
Despite this, she is in favour of vouchers as a means of extending provision and raising standards, arguing that they should be "incorporated throughout the system".
But current proposals will not be effective, she feels, unless funding is extended to three-year-olds.
At grass roots level then, the current voucher format doesn't seem able to fulfil its promise of a "significant step forward". Targeting funding at a group, most of whom already receive state-funded provision, is difficult for parents to comprehend; they feel current proposals seem unlikely to have any dramatic impact on provision for the under-fives.
Claire Tindall is working on a dissertation on nursery voucher as part of a BA course.