Like lemmings to the nursery voucher slaughter

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The Department for Education and Employment proudly announced recently that 77 per cent of eligible parents had applied for nursery vouchers.

Mrs Shephard's analysis of this fact was published in your pages: "This confounds the critics and cynics who said that the scheme was unpopular with parents and would not work." She was said to be delighted with the take-up.

Were the tears on my cheeks of mirth or despair?

Probably both.

A 77 per cent take-up means that, one month after the application forms were released, 23 per cent of eligible parents have still not applied. If this average were applied to an LEA where the under-fives grant had been reduced byPounds 2 million to pay for the scheme, this would equate to Pounds 460, 000 in unredeemed vouchers.

As an analysis of cause and effect, the assumption that a 77 per cent take-up is a sign of parental enthusiasm that confounds critics and cynics reminds me of two personal reminiscences from academics in my family. After a visit to an environmental studies centre, a primary pupil wrote in his essay: "The reason why the churchyard was full of dead people was because it (the churchyard) had lots of yew trees."

While eating sandwiches in the cathedral grounds, a lecturer in perspective was rendered speechless by the observation of a fellow luncher: "Isn't it amazing how all the big starlings fly low to protect the little ones above?" Was the Secretary of State's comment purely "political speak", or could it be she is so divorced from reality, that she actually believes her cause-and-effect analysis?

Of course, the parents will apply for the vouchers, Mrs Shephard. LEAs and schools are making sure they do. You have taken away millions of the LEAs' under-fives grant, supporting the majority of the provision already in place nationwide for four-year-olds, in LEA nursery and reception classes. Through the means of time-consuming meetings, thousands of leaflet drops, and endless hours of advice to parents by school staff, LEAs will ensure that, by hook or by crook, those parents with pupils occupying expensive school places will ultimately obtain and surrender the vouchers to pay for those places.

The irony of the situation cannot have escaped you, Mrs Shephard. A wastefully bureaucratic scheme is being made to work by its most vociferous critics. It is being made to work by expensive means: diverting schools and LEA officers from their most vital education functions, to make success of a paper chase.

The full irony of the situation will become evident if the Government achieves another term of office. It proposes to extend vouchers to all age groups, on the basis of the "success" of the nursery experience.

Forced to devote massive and unfunded working hours efficiently recovering the cash that supports nursery and reception classes, LEA officers are lemmings, heading at full speed towards their untimely end.

Central funding of education, through issue of vouchers to all age-groups, must sound attractive to those critics of LEAs who would welcome their demise. In keeping with current custom and practice, a simplistic solution, worthy of the back of any envelope, is likely to be put into place as yet another sweeping change to education.

Whichever administration might be elected this summer, please hear a heartfelt plea for due consideration of cause and effect, based on fact, not supposition. Could it be that too many generations of "discovery learning" has produced adults incapable of seeking truth through grasp of facts first, followed by in-depth analysis of likely cause and effect?

A Lemming Cliff-top address supplied

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