Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, has clashed with one of the country's leading researchers over his bullish interpretation of the Stirling University study into the nursery voucher scheme. Sally Brown, Stirling's deputy principal, whose early findings were revealed in The TES Scotland two weeks ago, insisted this week: "Provision is popular, not the voucher. The mechanism by which they get this provision is largely irrelevant."
Mr Robertson launched into fulsome praise of vouchers before a research evaluation day last Friday, attended by council representatives and providers from the private and voluntary sectors. In a prepared statement, he said: "The first report of the independent evaluation of the voucher system confirms what I have been sure of all along. Parents like vouchers and no amount of misinformation from those opposed to their introduction have persuaded them otherwise."
Most of the findings in the four pilot areas reflect an early emphasis on the private and voluntary sectors and Professor Brown said: "Parents are largely indifferent to the vouchers and some think they are an extra bureaucratic task. They are delighted with the provision that is free, provides them with guaranteed places and in some areas provides them with some choice."
She maintains the initial findings do not support Mr Robertson's position.
The minister's statement added: "I am particularly pleased that parents value the increased emphasis on the quality of pre-school education that the voucher system has brought and that they found the application process for vouchers very easy. Before their introduction, we were repeatedly told that parents would not be able to cope with vouchers. The evaluation report shows that up for the patronising nonsense that it was."
In their interim conclusions, the researchers underline parent preference for council nurseries and the damaging effects of the scheme on non-council provision. The area of greatest uncertainty is over provision for three-year-olds. Early indications are that the scheme encourages the voluntary sector to place more emphasis on learning and structured activities and increases the reluctance of parents to become involved in playgroup duties, rotas and raising funds.
Vouchers also appeared to increase the amount of time individual children spend in nursery or playgroup but not necessarily the percentage of children attending some kind of pre-school provision.