A voucher system for nursery education had "powerful attractions", the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confessed last week, raising echoes of Lord Joseph at his old stamping ground, the Centre for Policy Studies. It was when he was Education Secretary a decade ago that the then Sir Keith Joseph responded to the vouchers lobby by declaring himself intellectually attracted to the idea of vouchers for schooling, but then equally characteristically examining the idea and deciding that it was impracticable.
Now that the vouchers lobby is on the march again, the attack is coming on three fronts, with the arguments for all of them given an airing last week, most particularly at a gathering of the faithful at the CPS. Lord Skidelsky's proposals for top-up vouchers for all 5-l6 schooling received the most excitable press coverage and the firmest put-down from both Prime Minister and Education Secretary. But there is no getting away from the fact that the voucher elements in the Conservative Party would dearly love to work this symbol of the market into the system somewhere.
In fact, it already has a foothold through training credits in the l6-l9 sector, a project which last year's White Paper on Competitiveness proposed extending to the whole of the age group through rechristened learning credits. The difficulty here is that this particular voucher system has run far from smoothly. Introduced through pilot projects run by selected training and enterprise councils, the training credits have offered uneven experiences. In theory they would have given young people in their first jobs (and later without them) the right to purchase the vocational courses they chose at a local college. In practice, their choice has often been constrained by the TECs; not exactly carte blanche for the purchaser.
Meanwhile the plan to extend the scheme so that it included all l6 to l9-year-olds - whether in school, college or employment - has run into predictable difficulties. A consultation paper due before Christmas has still not appeared, and there are rumours of disagreements and scaling-down. It is certainly hard to envisage school or college financing accommodating such major surgery without reworking entire funding systems. As Chief Secretary Jonathan Aitken warned his restive CPS audience on the pre-school issue, implementation "would not be completely straightforward".
As for nursery education, the question now is whether the financial headaches induced by John Major's promise to extend it to all four-year-olds can be cured by the witch-doctor's voucher solution. It is easy to understand the compelling attractions here. Since parents have a variety of wants and needs on behalf of their four-year-olds, isn't there a case for devising a mechanism whereby they "purchase" according to choice, be it in the part-time playgroup, nursery classes at the local primary, or private, possible all-day, schooling?
The immediate response is that what might be an "affordable" voucher value in CPS pamphlet (or Treasury) terms could pay for the voluntary playgroup, but neither local authority nor private nursery classes. The top-up fees would hardly equate with universal provision, and would mean subsidising those already able to pay fees at the expense of the have-nots most in need of nursery education.
Equally fundamental is the objection that such a funding solution could increase the fragmentation already bedevilling under-fives provision, when more coherent planning is the greatest need. At present, there may be diversity in the system, but parents very rarely have either a choice or their preferred solution. It is all very well Jonathan Aitken wanting to split the purchaser from the provider, but if the voucher doesn't carry sufficient purchasing power, what are the mechanisms that will finance the providers? Would local education authorities have to shut existing nursery schools and classes if their spending allocations were top-sliced to pay for the vouchers? And would they or the overstretched OFSTED be responsible for monitoring quality and an agreed curriculum?
The Department for Education consultation on nursery education was supposed to have started with a survey of existing provision and its gaps, so it must have heard the early years message that education needs to be co-ordinated with care for the under-fives. Either of these available part-time may be useless to the single parent in search of a job; a two-income family might pay for the combined all-day provision they want, but someone must provide. Education and social services have to work together for the ideal nursery centre solution, but Government thinking still seems to be keeping education and care separate. A voucher that combined both might really give the purchasers what they need (see our report on child care, page 20).
The department's preferred plan for an agency which would choose bids from public, voluntary and private providers may offer a better chance of co-ordinated planning than a free market in vouchers, but essentially the same questions have to be answered if the Government's promises of progress on nursery education are to offer any improvement on the present incoherent lottery. If the Government is determined not to expand nursery education through the LEAs, it may have to reinvent them to make it work.