"What matters is the quality of children's learning, first, last and always, " the minister stated as he came under attack from Opposition MPs at the Scottish Grand Committee for launching a publicity blitz on nursery vouchers costing Pounds 860,000. George Robertson, Labour's Scottish leader, said it was little more than "a crude election bribe" and promised to abolish vouchers.
Parents of all four-year-olds are being advised to apply for vouchers as part of a national scheme planned to start in August, although ministers admit it will only be "over time" that parents are offered a place. The Education Minister has, however, claimed that 90 per cent of parents will benefit if the Conservatives win the election.
Mr Robertson described the vouchers as "a triumph" and the system as "well planned, well structured and soundly based". Some 97 per cent of eligible parents in the four pilot areas had taken up vouchers and had shown they were not "gormless" as Labour had suggested. Administrative costs were less than Pounds 10 a child. But Mr Robertson said around Pounds 30 million was being injected into nursery education through vouchers.
A woman in the gallery, however, chided the minister before being removed. "You are a sick man from a sick party. I know the name of a good psychiatrist, " she shouted.
At a press conference later to launch the publicity drive, Mr Robertson rejected criticism by John Travers, director of education in North Ayrshire, who has described the voucher system his council is piloting as "confusing, bureaucratic and unnecessary". Mr Travers said it took no account of capital start-up costs and the problems of rural areas.
Mr Robertson preferred to quote Val MacIver, education convener in Highland, who said the pilot scheme there was "simple" to operate. Mrs MacIver, quoted in The TES Scotland last November, also stated it had cost Highland Pounds 80,000 for which no Scottish Office funding had been received. Administrative costs could be prohibitive for rural areas, she warned. Mr Robertson made no mention of this.
Mrs MacIver's comments, not quoted in full, were: "The administration of the vouchers is simple but the uncertainty of the market and costs of administration would lead us to favour direct funding of nursery provision. "