Vouchers bear the stamp of ignorance

A parent. In its latest Alice through the Looking Glass triumph, the nursery voucher scheme, the Government seems to have succeeded in drastically reducing parental choice rather than increasing it. Far from boosting the number of playgroups and nursery schools, the scheme is likely to force many to close as infant schools scramble to take the four-year-olds and their vouchers.

It is understandable that local authorities are rushing to corner the voucher market, rather than lose money from their already meagre budgets. The Government's failure to put new money into nursery education has ensured that some leas are introducing inappropriate provision for four-year-olds in a desperate attempt to grab voucher money. The result is that parents will not only face a depleted choice when it comes to choosing a nursery place for their three-year-olds, but they will also be forced to send their four-year-olds to school.

Of course, it is all too easy to blame the parents themselves. As the parent of a child in Dorset who will soon be eligible for vouchers, I was amazed to read in two national newspapers recently that playgroups and nursery schools in Norfolk are set to close because parents would rather use their vouchers in infants schools.

I know very few parents who want to withdraw their four-year-olds from well-staffed and appropriately equipped nursery schools and playgroups to place them in huge infant classes; at one of our local schools, children of barely four will be in a class of 36. At best, the staff-pupil ratio for four-year-olds in local schools will be 1:15, instead of the 1:6 or 1:8 they enjoy at nursery or playgroup.

I suspect that, like us, the Norfolk parents feel forced to send their children to school as early as the term after their fourth birthday because they could otherwise lose their place in the reception class. Unlike other less scrupulous neighbouring leas, our authority is doing its utmost to convince us that we do not have to send our children to the infant school nursery class. If we do not feel they are ready, of course we can keep them at playgroup for an extra term, during the first year of the voucher scheme. But some heads tell a different story.

"The demand for reception places is so high that I can't keep places open for children who don't start in September,'' one head told me. "In any case, what about families who move into the area in the autumn term and want their four-year-old to start straight away? Do I tell them there is no room?" The fact is that in our area there will be no chance of a reception place, and no place at the middle school and then the comprehensive, unless children join the nursery class. (The schools are over-subscribed and attendance at a "feeder" primary is one of the main criteria for entry to the next stage of schooling. ) One reason for the failure of nursery vouchers to widen choice and improve provision is that, as usual, the Government has not done its homework. At a meeting for school governors that I attended, Robin Squire, the schools minister, did not seem to have grasped how many four-and-a-half-year-olds already went to school, and therefore how easy it would be for leas to make sure of voucher money by lowering the age of admission still further.

The Government's blind spot over four-year-olds was exposed again recently when it transpired that proposed baseline assessment for reception pupils was too difficult; the targets assumed that reception pupils were aged five.

Of course, the main reason for the failure to ensure quality provision is the lack of funding. Schools cannot provide an appropriate staff-pupil ratio for four-year-olds with a paltry Pounds 1,100 a year; in some areas, this is less than leas are already spending on nursery pupils.

But for parents the most frustrating aspect is that no one seems to have stopped to ask the fundamental question: is this the best thing for our four-year-olds? Our children already start school earlier than in almost any other European country, yet the huge number of illiterate and innumerate adults that this system produces does not suggest it has any benefits.

The writer lives in Dorset

* 'Herts breakers', Page 15

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