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Vouchers, for what they're worth

All parents suffer from Attention Deficit Syndrome. One minute we're consumed by the problems of overcrowded infant classes; the next by A-level choices, and whether it's true what they say about drugs at the sixth-form college.

As we hurtle through the years, old problems are wiped away as totally as the memory of how much it hurts to have a baby. Been there, we think, done that. And turn our faces to the next thing.

So when the idea of nursery vouchers reared its head this spring, it wasn't easy to recapture the flavour of pre-school days and work out how much, if any, difference vouchers would have made to them.

My children went to a playgroup in a church hall so antiquated it should have been - and later was- shut down by the health authorities. Rotten sections of floor were roped off with makeshift barriers made from old bits of slide and sand tray. The loos were two potties and a bucket with a lid, and the entrance was an alleyway too narrow for buggies, leaving many a sleeping baby abandoned in the street while its parent flew in to drag out an older sibling.

I suppose it might have been nice to have a voucher to pay for all this, but the fees were low and, truly, money wasn't the main worry. The crummy facilities were, plus the fact that there was no choice. In our neighbourhood it was the playgroup or nothing, and given the nature of those harassed pre-school years, I think I would have dumped my children at a playgroup on a toxic tip if that's what it took to buy space and time. (Pre-schooling, of course, having far more to do with parental needs, than those of children. ) Later they moved on to an excellent, free nursery class at the local primary, and very lucky they were too. Getting them in was more of an achievement than bagging a place at Winchester and many forlorn families were left with their faces pressed against the glass.

So my memories of those years are memories of anxieties about quality and quantity of pre-school provision. And whether a voucher system would have helped with either of those problems, I'm honestly not sure.

What I am sure about is that vouchers - Centre for Policy Studies please note - aren't vote-winners.

Ask any pre-school parent about them, and in between picking up little Sarah's stuffed rabbit and hurtling off down the street after runaway Matthew, the response tends to be, "What? I don't get it. Oh, I see." And then, after a thoughtful pause, "Well, I dunno. It really all depends, doesn't it?".

Because vouchers are hard even for the experts to get their heads around, let alone a distracted parent who's been up half the night with a teething baby.

They are slippery things, glittering provocatively at those who believe in choice, freedom and a private educational market from afar, but turning distinctly warty when viewed closer to hand. They have been around, in one form or another, for the past 20 years, and when they've been tried - mainly in various small schemes in the United States - they haven't worked particularly well.

Even Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and nursery vouchers' chief champion, concedes that introducing them would "not be completely straightforward". Set them too high, he notes, and the scheme becomes too expensive; too low, and it puts nursery schooling out of reach for many parents.

They might, I suppose, do something towards increasing the flexibility of pre-school care. Working parents could use their voucher to pay for the educational element of an extended-day place, for example, topping up the care element from their own resources.

But there still aren't nearly enough such integrated centres, and how would vouchers help with the start-up costs of providing more? And if they don't help with capital costs, how can they ever encourage more provision, let alone ensure that that provision is of sufficiently high quality?

The answer, of course, is that they can't. Vouchers are a mere transfer mechanism; bits of paper, with a myriad questions attached. How will they be distributed? Who will set the rate? Will it go up with inflation? Will four-year-olds in infant classes qualify? Wouldn't a straightforward family tax credit be a simpler way of channelling money towards young families? And if not, why not?

And - will yet another costly educational bureaucracy have to be set up to answer all these, and other, questions?

We still lag pitifully in providing for the needs of modern pre-school families. True, almost 80 per cent of four-year-olds now get some sort of playgroup or school place, but too many of them are in reception classes designed for older children, and few families have access to the kind of flexible pre-school provision they really want.

It is sobering to realise that the idea of safe, clean, high-quality, multi-stranded, extended-day nursery centres still sounds utopian to us, when such centres are already part of the landscape in many parts of Europe and the US.

Most have been brought into being through some combination of public and private funds. But none of the ones I know of are the product of vouchers.

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