Vouchers turn up temperature in hot seat

Diane Le Grice is not happy. The head of the White House private nursery school in Norfolk believes she has done everything Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has asked.

She invested Pounds 40,000 in extending the village school premises near Great Yarmouth to take in more four-year-olds when Norfolk became a pilot authority for the Government nursery voucher scheme. She has provided training and workshops, joined county and national working groups and qualified as an inspector.

She believed vouchers would allow her to take in children from all backgrounds instead of only the better-off. Instead, she has seen her classes filled with the same intake as before, only now with vouchers.

To add insult to injury, she has seen the Funding Agency for Schools give large grants to local grant-maintained primaries to build nursery units when figures suggest there are already surplus places.

"I'm a bit idealistic," Mrs Le Grice said. "When vouchers came out I took it very much to heart because some parents would not be able to afford to send their children here. We will survive, because there will always be people prepared to pay for the best. But my ideal was to be accessible to everybody. "

At the school, standing in the shadow of 10 huge wind turbines on the windswept Norfolk coastal plains, even those parents who have benefited from vouchers feel the scheme has not been a total success.

This is the better-heeled, rural end of the Great Yarmouth constituency, which lies sixty-eighth on Labour's list of target Tory seats.

But the mostly traditional Tory voters who send their children to the White House say vouchers are just one more reason they are sceptical about returning sitting Tory MP Michael Cartiss.

Choice is a key issue for these parents, particularly in an area where primary school classes often number more than 35.

Some parents, such as Philip Henley, have been told by both LEA and grant-maintained schools that if they don't send their children there at four, they cannot be guaranteed a place when they turn five.

"As someone who was privately educated, I still believe in choice," Mr Henley said. "Without a tradition of nursery classes in Norfolk's state schools, these parents have become used to the small groups and high standards of private schools such as the White House."

County and grant-maintained primary schools have rushed to join the market for nursery vouchers, building on three years of work by Norfolk County Council to expand nursery provision - an expansion that has stopped in its tracks as funding runs out.

Caroline Coleman, whose daughter Eleanor is at the White House but will start at a local first school as a four-year-old in September, cites the FAS's decision to give Pounds 30,000 to a local primary school to open a nursery as a "classic example" of the way the system has collapsed.

"There is a huge conflict of interest between local schools and private providers and it is the children who suffer," she says. "Who was thinking about their best interests? Instead of co-operation, there's breakdown."

The FAS argues that its investment in GM first schools is extending choice and accessibility in a large geographical area with poor transport.

Norfolk has seen the proportion of parents using vouchers at private nurseries drop from almost 40 per cent in the first term of the scheme to less than eight per cent in the second as state schools rush to expand reception classes.

Labour is quick to echo the problems found by parents. Labour candidate Tony Wright, who faces the challenge of overturning Mr Cartiss's 5,000-plus majority, says he would want to see parents continue to have a choice of private and public nurseries, but without the bureaucracy of vouchers.

Mr Cartiss admits there have been teething problems. "Some private nurseries feel they haven't had a fair crack of the whip," he said, "but others feel it has given them a boost." But he confesses nursery education is not top of his schools agenda. Indeed, the former secondary school teacher and Norfolk education chairman expresses indifference to many recent Conservative education changes.

He shed no tears at the loss of the selection clauses in the Education Bill last month. He is a keen promoter of GM status - seven out of his eight high schools are GM, as are several primaries - but would not force schools to opt out.

He wants smaller primary classes and more consensus in education. But the Eurosceptic MP sees the main election issues in the election as Europe - he greets The TES with a long and excited explanation of his position on a single currency - and the economy (in a town where tourism is on the decline).

Great Yarmouth, with its endless stretches of amusement arcades, guesthouses and cafes, has the highest unemployment rate in Norfolk. Some struggling guesthouses have turned rooms over to job-seekers. This, with the town's traditional seasonal ups and downs has created a transient population in the schools.

The move by so many local schools to opt out of county control has been relatively undivisive, marked more by a split between town and county than between Left and Right.

Until 1974, Great Yarmouth ran its own affairs, and some feel the town's schools have been badly served by Norfolk. Opting out was one way of regaining control - and, of course, it brought its own financial incentives.

Mr Wright, who leads Great Yarmouth Borough Council with a Labour majority of 28, is tentative about the future of grant-maintained schools under Labour.

He is firmer on the issue of selection: two high schools, including technology college Lynn Grove, select up to 15 per cent of pupils.

"I would like to see selection end," he said. "Those schools cover quite a large catchment area and they are taking away choice from parents to send their children to the school of their choice in their catchment area."

Back at the White House, parents do not echo Mr Cartiss's view of the electoral importance of education. They place it high on the agenda, although they recognise that unless they vote Liberal Democrat - and candidate Derek Wood starts 13,000 votes behind Labour - there will be little extra cash for schools.

And, ironically, after their experiences with vouchers some now see Labour as the party of choice.

Labour voter Diana Timms, whose son Daniel will be four in July, must decide between keeping him at White House and sending him to first school with its larger classes. She said: "We want choice, but choice maintaining quality. I would rather pay than just take whatever is on offer."

RESULT IN 1992: Michael Cartiss (Con) 25,505; Barbara Baughan (Lab) 20, 196; Malcolm Scott (Lib Dem) 7,225. Majority 5,309.

Nursery voucher survey, page 11

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