In announcing a system of vouchers to be given to the parents of four-year- olds, the Government has missed an important opportunity to create a longer- term vision for an integrated system of high-quality education and care for young children.
While vouchers recognise the importance of responding to parents' views, evidence from elsewhere shows they are unlikely to increase provision unless additional start-up resources are found; they are unlikely to improve quality; they are likely to transfer funding from those who cannot afford to pay to those who can and they bring with them heavy administrative costs and additional bureaucracy.
By aiming to "boost the number of private and voluntary sector places", vouchers will bring additional resources to playgroups and private nurseries, but unnecessary administrative headaches to local authorities, who already provide for about 85 per cent of four-year-olds.
Parents in pilot areas are to be given vouchers in February, with Pounds 1,100 being clawed back from local authorities for all four-year-olds. The first additional places are to come "on stream" two months later. How are plans to be made in that time? How are playgroups with no spare buildings to find extra capital to set up new groups. How will any providers know who will come through their door in April?
And what of quality? Research in the Royal Society of Arts Start Right report showed that unless this education was of high quality, including an appropriate curriculum and well-trained staff, then it was of little value. Such high quality does not come cheap - around Pounds 2,500 for a nursery education place (with a trained nursery teacher and nursery nurse to each group of 25) and Pounds 1,700 in a reception class (where many groups are already too large and the curriculum often not appropriate to children of this age). Are schools thus to stop employing teachers for four-year-olds?
Gillian Shephard has said she will make no specification on qualifications or numbers of staff, but that voucher income can be used to invest in training or better-qualified staff. A sum of Pounds 1,100 looks unlikely to buy a place, let alone leave money for training.
The Rumbold report stressed that the process of "acquiring the disposition to learn" is as important as what they learn. It also warned that "educators should guard against pressures which might lead them to concentration on formal teaching and upon the attainment of a specific set of targets".
To be accredited to receive vouchers, nurseries and playgroups will be required to provide "certain outcomes, based on activities that will be defined by SCAA". It remains to be seen what these are, but this approach seems some way from the curriculum framework currently being developed by the main national organisations as part of the Early Childhood Education Forum's Quality in Diversity Project.
And how will quality be ensured? A new look at the separate inspection arrangements currently required by the Office for Standards in Education (for nursery education and the Children Act (for playgroups and private nurseries) is to be welcomed. But references to a "light touch inspection framework" and the Government's commitment to deregulation raise a number of questions about quality, and do not acknowledge the value of ongoing staff development and in-service training in improving quality.
There are other ways in which the needs of children and parents could be met. In a paper submitted to ministers by the Early Childhood Education Forum, it was suggested that local authorities should be required to work collaboratively with the voluntary and private sectors in the production of a development plan for early childhood services. This would build on the excellent work going on in many areas and required by the Children Act - planning across all sectors in response to local need and ensuring continuity of experiences for children.
The Department for Education has consulted widely and has consistently heard of the need for a long-term strategy that provides high-quality education in the context of day care and other measures to help families balance work and bringing up children. What a pity they have been diverted by vouchers.
Dr Gillian Pugh is director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau