Councils pressure ministers to drop nursery voucher scheme

Flagship Wandsworth authority says pilot scheme left parents confused and schools suspicious. Fran Abrams reports
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The Independent Online
Ministers are under pressure to drop plans to launch nationwide nursery vouchers next spring after the leaking of critical reports which say they could lead to lower standards.

Tory-controlled Wandsworth, formerly an enthusiastic supporter of the programme, will tell a parliamentary inquiry next week that its pilot scheme caused confusion among parents and deep suspicion in schools.

A report to the committee from Kensington and Chelsea will raise similar concerns, saying that the difference in quality between different schools is too wide. Westminster council, the third of four authorities involved in this year's trial run, has already said the same thing, adding that the programme will not create enough new places.

An internal memorandum which will form the basis of Wandsworth's evidence to the select committee on education and employment says the scheme should not have been labelled as "nursery" education because it only includes four-year-olds. It entitles parents to apply for pounds 1,100 vouchers which can be cashed in by state schools, private schools or playgroups.

The Wandsworth report, leaked to Labour's nursery spokeswoman, Margaret Hodge, also reveals that the borough was given almost pounds 80,000 in concessions and grants to help make the scheme work.

Private nurseries which can cash in the vouchers could be less rigorously controlled than state ones, the councils say.

Kensington and Chelsea believes its decision to take part in the pilot was vindicated but comments that there is "substantial difference" in provision between providers who are approved.

Wandsworth has asked for rules on the quality of education provided under the voucher scheme to be tightened up. "The suspicion is ... that many children and parents will face the possibility of a lower standard of nursery education," its report says.

The briefing note adds: "Vouchers do not, of course, guarantee a child a place ... This has not always been fully understood by parents." The scheme does not seem to have had "any discernible effect" on either the number of places or the quality of nursery education, Wandsworth says.

Parents whose children are already in nursery classes often refuse to apply for vouchers because they think they do not need them, according to the three authorities, and hard-pressed schools in deprived areas have to waste time filling in the forms themselves to get their pounds 1,100.

Wandsworth adds, however, that the problems with the scheme have not been as severe as some critics had predicted. "In Wandsworth, schools have already raised the profile of nursery education. This is quite a feat for a borough which already has extensive provision," it says. A spokesman for the council said the report was an honest appraisal of the scheme. "Overall we think it has been very successful," he said.

Ms Hodge has now called on Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to abandon plans for a national programme. "We thought Westminster's submission was highly critical but this is completely damning. Before this becomes another poll tax disaster I will ask Mrs Shephard to think again and not waste public money on an ill-conceived scheme," she said.

The National Union of Teachers, which has received Kensington and Chelsea's report, has also written to Mrs Shephard asking her to consult on alternative schemes.

However, ministers are determined to press on with the scheme despite the negative response from the pilot scheme in four areas, which also include Norfolk. Mrs Shephard will praise the vouchers in her speech to the Tory party conference in Bournemouth on Thursday and will launch a national advertising campaign later in the autumn to make parents aware of them.

Leading article, page 17

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