Nursery catch-22

14th July 1995 at 01:00
Win some; lose some. Though Gillian Shephard may have bounded up the Cabinet ladder with her expanded empire, her ill-judged nursery voucher scheme could send her slithering down again when the emptiness of its promises becomes apparent.

What a tragedy that a Government which has finally recognised the virtues of integrating education, training and employment services for the over-l6s cannot do the same for education and care for the under-fives, and what a missed opportunity.

Mrs Shephard is probably right to say that a cash voucher in the hand will be very popular with parents, but the euphoria will soon wear off among the majority who cannot afford to top up the Pounds l,l00 face value, whose four-year-olds remain in oversized reception classes, who find its value slashed in playgroups, or who still cannot find what they want on their doorstep. A voucher represents a choice-and-diversity policy in its purest form. Plenty of parents have been disillusioned to discover that parental choice means nothing when the school places are not there, they will feel even more cheated with a voucher in their hands if the nursery places are not there.

If we accept the hints and rumours that: first, Mrs Shephard did not believe vouchers to be the best way to deliver on the Prime Minister's promise of a nursery place for every four-year old; and second, favoured a first-stage programme to expand provision before launching vouchers, then we also have to believe that she conceded to superior pressure in Cabinet, from the Treasury, or John Major himself.

For the worst news about the vouchers is that they come unaccompanied by any money for start-up costs, buildings, or training, that the bulk of the money will be recycled from what the local authorities are already spending on the education of four-year-olds, and that, although education must be provided, quality standards may be set at the lowest common denominator, rather than meet the sort of curriculum blueprint endorsed by early-years specialists. Mrs Shephard says that a free market will provide, and that standards will be driven up while costs are driven down, but it is impossible to believe all three things at once.

When Mr Major made his opportunistic nursery promises, he gave every sign of listening to the arguments of the National Commission on Education, who said that nursery education should be provided for all three and four-year-olds, but with socially disadvantaged children as a priority, and to the American research which demonstrated the enormous financial pay-off in terms of subsequent achievement and behaviour from investing in a highly-structured, high-quality nursery programme, again for disadvantaged groups.

The voucher programme now unveiled, however, ignores all the critical factors in those reports on both curriculum structure and priorities. Instead, it recycles money away from the local authorities who are providing for the poorer families, and into the vouchers which in turn may go into the pockets of those already paying private school or nursery fees. The vouchers will make little difference to the former group except make things worse, since the LEAs will have little money left to invest in nursery expansion, but will indeed prove a welcome subsidy to the private fee-payers. These latter are not necessarily rich, but may well be working parents who have found that the private sector has responded more effectively than the local authorities to the flexible full-day mix of education and care that they need. Some LEAs have been doing this, but others have got bogged down in the divisions between education and social service staff, and most will find that the voucher system will make it harder to develop in that way in the future.

Full marks to the private entrepreneurs who were quicker to see a gap in the market. Their customers will certainly be the winners from the voucher scheme, though their costs will not be covered. The key question now is whether enough small businesses will be attracted into the nursery market to justify Gillian Shephard's faith. They will certainly have to drive down costs to make a go of it, so how do they drive up standards at the same time unless parents really can pick and choose? It is significant that even successful private nursery companies are fearing a rash of cowboys. And since deregulation also holds sway, they are to be inspected with a "light touch" as regards both education and health and safety.

As to the voluntary sector, which had expected so much from a Government which extolled its virtues, the playgroups discover that some vouchers are to be more equal than others, the Treasury clawback leaving nothing to invest in the staff training that was supposed to upgrade their education content. Every voucher carries its own catch-22.

The reason that this country lags so far behind the rest of Europe in its early-years provision is that it is fragmented and uneven in quality, as well as far from universal. There is more diversity than choice, since usually the choice is between education and care and nothing, rather than what parents want, for the hours that they want. Since neither the low value of the vouchers, nor the expected quality threshold seems likely to ensure reliable standards, it is hard to see how vouchers can do anything but increase the fragmentation, patchiness and unfairness of our nursery schooling.

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