Poor law

7th June 1996 at 01:00
The tide of nursery vouchers could pull some poor schools under. Helen Penn hears one head's story. Georgia is the headteacher of a nursery and infant school who is convinced it must be a community school to succeed. "It depends how you see your role," she says. "I can't teach unless the parents are happy and secure so their children are happy and secure."

Since her school is located on a drug-ridden sink estate in inner London, this is no mean task. She has raised money to refurbish and extend her nursery to offer more full-time places, she has built a family room with a kitchen, she runs all kinds of help and advice surgeries with and without help - counselling, access to women's refuges, benefits information, debt counselling, self-help groups, literacy and English as a second language classes. "You name it, we've tried it," she says.

The measure of her success, paradoxically, is that she has more referrals from social work, more outside agencies wishing to secure places for their clients, more difficult children and distraught parents, since she takes in families other schools reject. She has not a single middle-class child in her school.

Georgia's school is in one of the local authorities where vouchers are being piloted. She is not in favour of the scheme. "It's a financial gift to the well off, makes fools of those who have a little, and is no damn use to the poor." However, like every other headteacher in her borough she has no option but to try and make vouchers work. She is finding it difficult.

First of all, the vouchers have not reached all her parents. Phoning the helpline number on behalf of a parent, she was told that if the parent did not have a child benefit book she would not have been picked up. This means that some of her parents will not be eligible: illegal immigrants and those who believed they could not claim child benefit because they are on income support - some of the most vulnerable children. While she can do something for those who are on income support, she can do nothing for the children of immigrants, except to report them to the Home Office.

Georgia reckons that about 25 per cent of her parents are functionally illiterate. Even if they do get child benefit they have not been able to cope with the voucher scheme. She claims that, for her parents, "vouchers are just another load of paper and they can't deal with the paper they have got".

She cites the example of a neighbouring school, which has a mainly middle-class catchment, where one letter about vouchers was returned by 96 per cent. Georgia has issued a letter and a catchy leaflet, organised two meetings, phoned those parents who have phones, and has had a 33 per cent return rate.

She is now trying to organise some kind of policing of the classrooms at home-time to persuade parents to let her fill in the forms for them. The local authority allows a nominal administration cost of one hour per pupil at Pounds 4 an hour administrative help to set the system up. Georgia could weep at the inadequacy of it.

Although various schemes are being set up to monitor the vouchers, by the Audit Commission and by the Daycare Trust for example, the local authority does not appear to have a monitoring scheme in place. It claims a high return rate overall for its voucher scheme, but Georgia has never been approached for figures.

There is a further complication about out-of-borough placements. Georgia's school is right near the borough boundary. It would pay better to attract less problematic parents from a neighbouring borough where there are fewer nursery classes, than to keep places for muddled parents from the estate. The local authority is having negotiations with its neighbouring authorities about transfer of vouchers, and until this is sorted out, Georgia has been told to suspend her arrangements for admissions for next term in case she offers a place which cannot be paid for.

In another way, too, Georgia is having to juggle places. Other local schools offer almost all part-time places, because more children coming through the nursery has meant a larger enrolment at the school. But Georgia has always stuck out for full-time places.

Because the local social services day nursery has been closed, she agreed to take more at-risk children referred by social workers (even though it means covering case conferences, for which she gets no supply cover). She offers such children a full-time place. She also offers full-time places to the children of single parents who are studying or in employment.

In the past, many of these places have been offered to three-year-olds. But, because of the vouchers, the local authority has now restricted the number of full-time places she can offer, and she can only offer them to children who are four in the year they are admitted. So those who previously had places will now be turned away, and no more children will enjoy two years in the nursery - a continuity they badly need.

The pressure on places is intense. There is room in the school building to expand, but of course there are no staff. So Georgia goes over her numbers - each of her nursery classes is up to 29, more than the 24 she is offficially allowed. But as she says, "what is the point of the Children Act if I don't co-operate with my colleagues in social work to offer places to children most in need?" In her view, money is dictating policy, rather than need. "The voucher scheme does not come fully into operation until September, but what then? The money that comes in for vouchers directly affects my ability to employ staff. It makes nonsense of my financial forecasting. I have to look at each parent and think, 'is this person likely to get me a nursery voucher?' " Georgia's concerns are unfashionable as well as costly. By focusing exclusively on "learning" and "outcomes" - on inner-city reading results - we are forgetting what a school can contribute to its local community as a resource, as a friendly haven in a bleak place.

We need schools that have the energy to attempt innovative solutions to the almost insuperable problems which surround them, rather than relying on tired formulas. Instead of choice between schools, we should be aiming at flexibility within them. For Georgia the voucher scheme has been disastrous and promises to be more so.

"It is taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The kids have got no one, absolutely no one, to stand up for them. Parental choice is an absurdity, Where would the parents go if they didn't come here? Where could they afford to go?

"The voucher scheme is more than a waste of time, it's actually immoral. Why there isn't a revolution about it I don't know. Perhaps it's because we are so ground down we can barely think, let alone stand up and shout."

uThe names and a few details have been changed.

Helen Penn is senior research fellow at the Institute of Education, London University

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