When the carping over nursery vouchers has died down, what will come to light is that at last, all the diverse factions which provide pre-school education and care will taste the rigours of the market-place. Believe me, there is no greater test of "quality", because here it is judged by those who experienced it, rather than those who spend time defining and talking about it.
Having taught for 20 years, the last six in a private nursery school of my own, it comes as no surprise to hear that pre-school education is a costly item. What I do get sick of is the insinuation that private nurseries are "fat cats" eager to grab as much as they can, as quickly as they can. Is it appreciated just what flexibility and what exacting standards the market demands? Is it really assumed that as doors are opened parents and children flood in? Not true, it takes years of dedication demonstrating values and the highest possible professional standards before parents will place their child in private nursery care and be willing to pay for it.
These standards are partly laid down in the Children Act, which although hot on many of the mundane aspects of pre-school provision such as the ratio of children to toilets, is cool on the most important issue of all: the emotional well-being of the child, influenced strongly by the quality of adultchild interaction. Who, though, has helped the private sector to maintain the standards of the Children Act to date? No LEA grants or charitable pay-outs available to them, but of course they charge fees to make a profit, don't they? That profit margin is often so slim that staff wages commensurate with those earned in the state sector are unobtainable.
Vouchers are the first positive move the Government has made to help all pre-school providers, including those who have sunk thousands of pounds into creating more - and frequently the only - full-time nursery places in Britain. Vouchers could help the pay rates of those working in the private sector. We may read of vast nursery empires growing, but the majority of private nurseries are small-scale concerns run by individuals balancing regulations and outgoings.
Let's be clear that those private nurseries which are successful have already demonstrated their worth: all vouchers will do is to reaffirm their high standards. Could it be that those who are used to asking the taxpayer to "pay up and shut up", will no longer engage in the luxury of providing parents with what they assume they need and will have to respond to what they really want?
Vouchers are flawed but they do attempt to create a more level pre-school playing field. Is it this that the protagonists fear the most?