Blair set to accept Tory nursery vouchers

Education debate: Leader heads for clash with left as Labour launches strategy to raise standards in schools
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Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has decided to accept the Conservative scheme for nursery education vouchers if its nation-wide launch goes ahead, and his education spokesman, David Blunkett, is considering a plan to trump it by offering higher-value vouchers.

Such a move could provoke sharp internal divisions in the Labour Party, which has always condemned educational vouchers as right-wing dogma.

Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett today launch a crusade to raise standards with plans to close bad schools if there are spare places in nearby schools. Otherwise, they should have a "fresh start" and be reopened with a new head and governors. Teachers would have to reapply for their jobs. In Excellence for Everyone, the second education policy paper since Mr Blair became leader, Labour says it should be easier to sack headteachers, that heads should have a new professional qualification and a new grade of "super teacher" should be created.

Meanwhile, Labour is planning to pre-empt nursery vouchers. After a small pilot scheme next year, the Government intends to give all parents of four-year-olds vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to buy part-time nursery school or playgroup places in February 1997, three months before the last date for the general election.

The Labour leader is understood to believe it would be unthinkable to go into the election promising to take the vouchers away. Sources say he is sympathetic to a plan at present being discussed by Mr Blunkett's team to give effect to the party's aim to provide nursery education for all three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds.

This would stress Labour's claim that the Government's vouchers are inadequate to cover the cost even of many part-time places and offering higher value vouchers to pay for full-time places at age four and part-time places at age three.

Labour local councils have accepted that the party's pledge cannot be delivered quickly enough in the public sector alone. The Labour-controlled Association of Metropolitan Authorities yesterday set out a plan that would use private and voluntary sectors to top up public provision, but it remains opposed to vouchers, which would subsidise children at private nursery schools and take resources away from councils with good nursery provision. A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said yesterday: "The suggestion we might be backing the Government scheme is frankly absurd. The Government cannot even get Tory councils to back the planned pilot scheme."

The document published today contains other evidence of convergence between Labour and Tory policy, as it backs several policies recently adopted by the Government, such as testing for five-year-olds and the requirement for inspectors to report bad teachers to heads.

However, the two parties' policies differ on inspection. The Government has introduced four-yearly inspections with privatised teams but Labour says teams should include local council inspectors.

n Mr Blair will risk renewed controversy with his own party today by announcing plans to tighten up standards in schools.

The Labour leader will announce a National Register of head teachers. To get on the the register, would-be heads would have to pass rigorous competency tests before they were considered for a head post.

Leading article, page 18