Vouching for the nursery

The evidence of pilot projects suggests that the Government's nursery voucher scheme may not be vote-winner the Tories had hoped for
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Little loved and largely unwanted, the Government's cherished nursery voucher scheme looks as if it will be delivered on schedule early next year - just in time, Conservative Party strategists clearly hope, to influence voting patterns in the general election. A national publicity blitz, including TV advertising, to be launched next month, will culminate in the wholesale distribution of vouchers next February.

But with its opponents branding it "the new poll tax" - an unwieldy and ideological solution imposed on local communities by central government - the scheme seems unlikely at present to influence voters in quite the way the Tories hope. Evidence from the four local education authorities which joined a pilot scheme this year makes it difficult to believe that the vouchers - each worth a notional pounds 1,100 a year - will be greeted as a thousand-guinea gift by parents up and down the country.

There will be some, certainly, who will see a direct financial benefit, but they will mostly be parents who have already chosen private playgroups or nurseries for their four-year-olds. After all, pounds 1,100 is often less than half the annual fees at such institutions, and on this year's experience schools will demand the full fee up-front and issue a refund to parents only towards the end of the term, when the voucher has been processed.

The number of parents who will benefit directly in this way will be outnumbered many times over by, on the one hand, those whose local education authorities already provide nursery places, and on the other by those in areas of shortage where neither the education authority nor the private sector is able to provide a place. Both these groups will be inclined to see the scheme as a frustrating and futile nonsense - and the Tories may feel their wrath.

There is another category, and it is here that the Government clearly hopes to make a vote-winning impression: parents whose four-year-olds will have nursery or play-group places in either the maintained or the private sectors which would not have been there without the scheme. But it is not at all clear how many of these there will be; and even if there are thousands of them, will feel parents be inclined to thank the Government for a provision that has been overdue for more than two decades now?

Of the four LEAs which joined the pilot scheme launched in April this year - the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea, along with Norfolk - only Norfolk had a truly poor complement of nurseries. Indeed, with a new Labour administration which replaced long-standing Tory control in 1993 (Education Minister Gillian Shephard is a former chair of the Norfolk education committee) and which identified nursery education as a high priority, Norfolk was an ideal testing-ground for the voucher scheme.

And, if you look at the raw figures, the voucher scheme was certainly a hit. Across the county, which had only 800 nursery places in the maintained sector a year ago, no fewer than 30 nursery classes are being opened this year - an achievement that could hardly be denigrated. If the same success rate could be guaranteed early next year throughout those areas of England and Wales where nursery classes are in short supply, the Tories would have much to crow about, whatever was said by political opponents who oppose vouchers on principle.

But could it be done? The short answer is, probably not - at least not without a massive capital spending programme funded by central government and running immediately to tens of millions of pounds.

As Dr George Turner, Norfolk's education chairman, explains, the county was in a unique position to make the most of the pilot scheme. For a start, it had the physical fabric of 29 nursery classes built as long ago as the mid-Seventies, the fruit of a nursery education drive by Margaret Thatcher, then Ted Heath's education minister, which were never put into use because funds for teaching never became available. More importantly, Labour-controlled Norfolk only joined the pilot on the basis that it would receive a "sweetener" from the Government in the form of capital grants worth more than pounds 1m, which paid directly for 16 of the 30 new classes.

"But the capital grant - the part of the scheme that enabled us to open classes - won't be continued in phase two, while the wasteful part, the advertising and bureaucracy, will be retained," said Dr Turner. "Many things can be made to work which are inefficient, but this scheme represents dreadfully poor value for money."

The chances of large-scale capital funding being made available nationally, especially by a government intent on providing pre-election tax cuts if at all possible, are negligible. But without it, the best-intentioned of education authorities are going to find it impossible to open sufficient places to meet demand. Schools minister Robin Squire has explained that the Private Finance Initiative has been extended to cover this sort of expenditure, but it is difficult to see such a complicated and untried process providing the necessary funding in the short term.

This, of course, is where the ideological aspect of the voucher experiment is supposed to come to the rescue. In the view of Tory visionaries such as Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth Council, vouchers will stimulate the market to provide both competition, thus raising standards, and new places, even new schools, to meet demand. Mr Lister makes no secret of his long-term ambition to see vouchers extended right through the education system.

But it is difficult to see how the market can respond quickly enough to be of much benefit to the Tories next spring, and even more difficult to see how it can tackle some of the more intractable problems with the provision of nursery education. In Norfolk, where great progress has been made in urban areas, there is still a dearth of places for the 20 per cent of children living in thinly populated rural areas, where, if the LEA cannot provide nurseries, the private sector is unlikely to be able to do any better.

Furthermore, the introduction of a market in education brings with it unintended consequences. The rules have been kept deliberately user-friendly to encourage entrepreneurs to start new nurseries and play groups, and there are genuine fears that unscrupulous operators interested only in low costs and high profits could move into the sector. Audrey Wilson, a nursery school head from Nelson who is on a working party preparing for the introduction of vouchers in Lancashire, put it this way: "I could open a school, give it a really posh name and be good at persuading parents to hand over their vouchers, but my staff would be on pounds 3 an hour. Would their experience be enough? Children are too precious to be treated that way. Is this really the wisest way of spending money on nursery education?"

The inspectorate may root out the dodgiest operators, but there are clear signs that the private sector - an intended beneficiary of the scheme - will suffer in the competition for vouchers. In many parts of the country, parents use private nurseries before sending their children to the local primary as rising five-year-olds. The pressure on local education authorities and primary schools to tap into the funds provided by vouchers will persuade many to alter admission procedures so they take children as soon as they turn four, instead of the term they turn five. At least six private nurseries and play groups have so far closed down in Norfolk alone.

The net result, as Susan Hay of the Child Care and Education Association has told the Government consistently, is that the private sector will lose children and income, and will be left to cater for three-year-olds, the highest-cost group of children. Worse still, those large employers who have finally been persuaded to provide in-company nurseries to help working mothers are beginning to rethink their commitment on the basis that the Government is providing nursery classes. But, says Mrs Hay, "That's not at all what these working mothers need - they need all-day care."

Dr Turner also pointed out that bringing four-year-olds into reception classes early was by no means ideal. "They need proper nursery classes at that age," he said. Even Paul Robinson, director of education in pro- voucher Wandsworth, described the "nursery voucher scheme" as a misnomer: "It's really a funding scheme for four-year-olds."

Some of these concerns are certainly being heard by the Government. The 10 Downing Street policy unit has new education advisers who are looking at the scheme once again, and the Commons employment and education select committee is hearing evidence from the four pilot scheme LEAs. Iain Mills, a Conservative MP who has consistently criticised - and voted against - the scheme, believing it should be postponed for further tests, said there was a "whisper in the wind" that vouchers may backfire against the Government at the election. But the most that a Department for Employment and Education spokesman could promise was a number of improvements and simplifications to the vouchers themselvesn

An unwise experiment

For Jane Cook, the nursery voucher pilot scheme has been one experiment too many in early-years education. "I'm fed up with the Government using us as guinea pigs," she says. "They wouldn't dare do it with secondary education, but they know there's so much goodwill among early-years teachers that we will make things work."

Mrs Cook is the infants head at Honeywell Primary School, housed in an airy Victorian building in an affluent part of south-west London, and, with 680 pupils, the largest primary in the borough. This year, the parents voted for the school to go grant-maintained to avoid cuts planned by Wandsworth Borough Council that would have meant sacking teachers.

Having grappled with three separate national curricula since 1987, Mrs Cook says she understands the way this government handles education policy. "Rather than planning, piloting and reviewing, they just jump straight in feet first - they don't seem to mind making a mess. At least with the national curriculum you could see the point, but there is no educational gain to be had from the vouchers." She feels particularly aggrieved that, having been volunteered without consultation for the pilot phase that began in April, neither the school nor the parents have been canvassed for their views by either Wandsworth or the Department for Employment and Education.

It is not that the problems thrown up by the voucher scheme are insuperable, but each one has to be sorted out, which wastes valuable time - and with each new term, a new crop of parents with a new set of problems becomes eligible.

The school is not worried at the prospect of competition with the private sector - "We're not complacent, but competition's a fact of life" - but Mrs Cook certainly is fearful at what she sees as the threat which underlies the scheme, that vouchers will be extended throughout the education system.

At Honeywell, the main burden of running the voucher system falls to Eileen Green, the school's administration officer, whose view is unequivocal: "The Government must know it doesn't work, but they're determined to push it through," she says.

Nobody at Honeywell has a kind word for the scheme. "Everyone finds the vouchers a pain, to be honest," said Mrs Green. "The parents hate them because it's another thing to be responsible for, and they get embarrassed when we have to chase them up. It's extremely time-consuming - some days I spend the whole day working on vouchers. They're very badly worded, so sometimes the parents tear off the top voucher to bring in, when we need the whole thing."

Mrs Green had just spent two days ringing 30 parents who had not brought their vouchers in. She heard all sorts of excuses: that the child already had a place at Honeywell, so why did they need a voucher? Or that the voucher had arrived, but had now disappeared.

But Honeywell was a lucky school, according to Mrs Green. Most parents had no difficulty with the forms, and the great majority were supportive. "There are plenty of schools where it's the other way round. I don't know how on earth they're going to get their vouchers in," she said