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Tory opposes 'socialist' vouchers

Frances Rafferty reports on the stormy progress of a Bill described as a cryptic crossword without clues. A Tory rebel who voted against the Government on the second reading of the Education Bill, plans to table an amendment which would allow local authorities to opt out of the nursery voucher scheme.

Iain Mills, a Solihull MP, has spoken to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, about his intentions and although she is unlikely to support his proposal, he said she was not totally dismissive.

Mr Mills's complaint is that Solihull provides more than 70 per cent of its three and four-year-olds with Pounds 1,800 worth of "high quality, successful and established education". Parents in the borough have demonstrated against the scheme and have lobbied Mr Mills and Solihull's other MP, John Taylor, a junior minister.

Under the voucher scheme the borough will lose almost Pounds 3 million from its standard spending assessment - what the Government calculates that it needs to spend on education. Solihull will only recoup the money if all parents remain loyal to its services and do not spend their voucher in the private sector.

Solihull is not alone; 49 local authorities stand to lose 60 per cent of their SSAs for the under fives.

Mr Mills called the voucher scheme a "populist, socialist, centralist bureaucratic system" which worked against middle-class parents who had made nursery education a priority in their area.

Estelle Morris, a Labour education spokesperson, said she was concerned about lack of accountability.

The Nursery Education and Grant-maintained Schools Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to change regulations, such as the value of the voucher, without referring to Parliament.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said: "The Bill is like a cryptic crossword where the clues are not known so the Secretary of State can fill in all the blanks."

The Government will also be challenged over the inspection arrangements for private nurseries. Some, according to Labour, could be approved after only a two-and-a-half-hour inspection.

Ministers have agreed to look at special needs education for four-year-olds and have been asked to consider increasing the value of the voucher.

James Pawsey, chairman of the Tory backbench education committee, said the voucher scheme was a wonderful opportunity for parents and if successful should be extended across the board.

Opposition members of the committee pressed the Government to define the core assets of a GM school which it would use as collateral to raise loans.

Peter Kilfoyle, of Labour's education front-bench team, said: "It makes it impossible for schools to borrow if their surety is unclear. It is also very unattractive to lenders, especially if they know a school will be closed down if it defaults."

Voucher 'nightmare', page 10

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