Treasury 'rats' earn Moser ire

16th June 1995 at 01:00
The National Commission's founder is angry at the lack of action on nurseries, reports Susan Young. A hard-hitting condemnation of the Government's lack of action on nursery education has been made by Prince Charles's education adviser, the man whose commission sparked John Major's promise to move towards high-quality pre-school services.

Sir Claus Moser, founder of the National Commission on Education, which recommended high-quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, says he is dismayed by the lack of action since John Major's "cast-iron commitment" 18 months ago to provide a nursery place for every four-year-old whose parents wanted one. He blames rearguard action by the Treasury.

Nursery education was a key recommendation in the commission's report, published in November 1993, and is one of the themes it has revisited in its angry final report which is launched today.

The independent inquiry, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, came out of a speech made by Sir Claus in 1990 when he called for a Royal Commission into the state of British education - a request turned down within two days by the Thatcher government.

Sir Claus, former head of the Government's statistical service, said: "I think it's pathetic that we seem to be holding back from a rather brave reaction to our report. The evidence is there for everyone to see and convinced us that the most important policy change was to make available to every child aged three and four the good experience of nursery education - not playgroups, that's a different game.

"What happened? This was government policy for goodness knows how long, when Mrs Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister immediately accepted it. But since then, in spite of Mr Major's strong backing, nearly two years have gone by.

"What then happened was that the Treasury rats got on to it. First of all it slipped from three and four year-olds to just four-year-olds.

"Mrs Shephard has been valiantly trying to get resources but now it is being argued that there should be a voucher scheme - which we all know is not good for equal opportunities, is very complex and ultimately doesn't save the Government money."

Sir Claus's comments were made before this week's renewed speculation that Mr Major is backing a Pounds 1billion voucher scheme to fund nursery education for all four-year-olds. A report in Tuesday's Financial Times suggested that he has secured Gillian Shephard's agreement to phased implementation of a market-based system, which would give parents vouchers worth Pounds 1,000, usable in either state or privately-run nurseries.

Sir Claus cited the increasing number of newspaper stories pouring cold water on positive research findings about nursery education and arguments that perhaps the money should initially be spent on primary schools, as pointing to attempts to downplay the importance of quality under-fives' classes.

He said: "The Prime Minister's immediately positive reaction has been whittled away, simply by the Treasury, simply by money. What's more complicated is why there hasn't been more public anger. But I think if you did a Gallup poll you would find people thought things were actually happening."

Although Sir Claus is keen to pay tribute to positive developments in education during the past few years, such as the expansion of further and higher education and the slimmed-down national curriculum, there are many aspects causing him anger and concern.

He attacks the Government attempts to claim a lack of evidence that class size affects education, saying the true reason for the reluctance is cost.

"After all, there is something called common sense which would suggest to me that especially in disadvantaged areas with a multicultural community and lots of languages you might expect the children in smaller classes to have a better time." He is also cross about lack of action on the commission's call for a General Teaching Council.

But what makes him most angry, he says, is the gulf between privileged and disadvantaged schools - which is not a matter of the stateprivate divide. "It is a great disappointment to me that the Government has not grabbed the problem of schools in disadvantaged areas with a specific minister given responsibility by the Department for Education."

Although he praises the expansion in university education he is now concerned that changes will have to be made in funding, with some sort of repayable fee and grant system to prevent damaging cuts within the institutions.

Sir Claus says the 10 issues highlighted for action in the National Commission's final report, Learning To Succeed: The Way Ahead, are all "absolutely necessary if in 25 years time we want 90 per cent of our children to have a really good time in education." It is, he stresses, intended to be a long-term policy over the next 25 years which would ensure a better economic future for Britain.

But, he stresses, it is time for action to be taken."We went to Germany to look at their well-known system of vocational and academic education with schemes linking employers and schools. We interviewed the minister in Bonn, and after two hours he asked me a question.

"He said 'I have been in this job for five years and hardly a month goes by without receiving a delegation from Britain asking these same questions. Why has nothing changed?' I found that rather sad."

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