EDUCATION : What will a voucher buy your child?

Judith Judd asks questions and offers answers about how a school voucher scheme might work
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Vouchers are back on the political agenda. Last week, the Government denied that it was considering a voucher scheme for children of compulsory school age but said that it was looking at vouchers for under-fives and post-16 students. A powerful group of cabinet ministers is now pressing for nursery vouchers despite the misgivings of Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education. Ministers are also considering a report from Coopers and Lybrand on vouchers for 16- to 19-year-olds. Below we ask some basic questions about vouchers and offer some answers.

Q. What is a voucher?

A. An education voucher is like a luncheon voucher. It can be exchanged for a nursery, school or college place.

Q. Would the private sector be included?

A. Yes. Mrs Shephard has said that one of the attractions of vouchers is that they can be used to knit together three strands - local authority nursery places, voluntary ones in playgroups and those in private schools.

Q. How much would the voucher be worth?

A. It could be worth anything from the full cost of a place, say £2,500, to a few hundred pounds.

Q. Who would decide how much?

A. Tricky question. The Government might fix the value centrally, but it could be decided by local authorities within limits suggested by ministers. The value would almost certainly need to be adjusted to local circumstances, to reflect higher costs in parts of the country.

Q. Would everyone get a voucher?

A. Not necessarily. One scheme favoured by the Treasury would leave out all higher-rate taxpayers. However, another would give a low-value voucher to everyone.

Q. What would parents get for their voucher?

A. Another tricky question. For 5-16 school education the answer is reasonably obvious - full-time school education and the national curriculum. For nursery and post-16 much less so. Those setting the voucher's value would need to stipulate whether it entitled the parent to three, four or five days' nursery education. Otherwise what was on offer might differ from one part of the country to another.

Q. Would it increase choice for parents by making more places available, for example in nursery education?

A. Logically, it should. If everyone had a voucher, demand would increase and there would be an incentive to set up more nursery schools. However, if the voucher's value were low, the incentive might not be great enough to increase the supply of places. The Government would have to decide whether there should be an element in the voucher towards the capital cost of new buildings.

Q. Who would be eligible as a provider of nursery education? Would Mrs Jones next door be able to collect a voucher for looking after her own child and yours?

A. Almost certainly not. The vouchers would be for education, not child care, and the Secretary of State for Education has promised that there will be checks on quality. More bureaucracy.

Q. What about playgroups?

A. Ministers are keen to include playgroups, which are cheaper than nursery education staffed by trained nursery nurses and teachers. However, nursery education experts say some playgroups do not meet the required standards of staffing and space.

Q. Would vouchers increase public spending?

A. Yes. If everyone is given a voucher of equal value, the taxpayer ends up subsidising those who are currently paying for private schooling. Even if the voucher is means tested, as the Treasury is proposing, public spending would still go up. The aim of vouchers for both nursery and post-16 places is to increase numbers. The more places provided, the greater the cost to the Exchequer.

Q. How much?

A. Nobody is sure. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Gillian Shephard, are arguing about the figures. The Treasury is keen on the idea because it pins down the amount of money being spent on each pupil or student.

Q. Would they increase bureaucracy?

A. Yes. A body or bodies would have to change the vouchers into cash and return the money to the institutions. If vouchers were means tested, bureaucrats would have to carry out the means testing. More administration would be needed if a child or student moved from one institution to another.

Q. Are vouchers right wing?

A. No. They have attractions for parties of the left and the right. Their attraction for the right is that they set up a market allowing providers to go in - and out - of business more easily. If the value of the voucher is set low enough, more private money will be pumped into the system as rich parents top up their vouchers to buy into the best schools and colleges. Equally, vouchers could be loaded in favour of disadvantaged children or those with special needs. If most parents were given a voucher of, say, £2,000, the poorest could be given ones for £3,000.

Q. So would a poor child have more chance of going to Eton or a private nursery?

A. Under the left-wing version, yes. Under the right-wing one, no.

Q. Has anyone tried out either version?

A. The left-wing one is being tried out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where poor children have been given vouchers for private schools. However, researchers found that those choosing private schools tended to be better educated. The numbers involved are small. If they were increased, the researchers suggest, the state schools would become even more of a ghetto. There was a limited experiment in Kent more than a decade ago involving only state schools. It was abandoned because it made little contribution towards increasing parental choice.

Q. Have vouchers ever been considered by a British government before?

A. Yes. In the mid-Eighties. Sir Keith Joseph said they were "intellectually attractive" when he was Secretary of State for Education but decided they were too expensive and not practical. Later, Margaret Thatcher asked two right-wing junior ministers to prepare a paper on them. They were again ruled out as impractical.