Major sees votes in nursery education: Patten expected to resist any budget cuts as speculation about rift grows

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THE EXPANSION of nursery education at an estimated cost of pounds 750m is being planned by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, under orders from John Major, who is giving the idea priority. Parents could be asked to make a contribution towards the bill.

Ministerial sources confirmed yesterday that they are also studying the option of offering parents nursery vouchers, which could be spent in the private sector. 'There is absolutely no doubt that there will be an expansion of nursery provision, but vouchers are a long way off yet,' one source said.

Cabinet colleagues of Mr Patten support vouchers. 'I would welcome the diversity they would provide,' said one. Right-wing Tory MPs also back the scheme. 'Vouchers would enable parents to shop around for their children and put them in control of the schools,' said Sir Rhodes Boyson, a former education minister and the MP for Brent North.

Mr Major believes a commitment to nursery education for all who need it could be a big vote-winner among parents at the next election in the same way that the 'right to buy' policy for council houses was. But the news led to speculation about a rift with his Education Secretary, who said recently that it could not be afforded.

The expansion of nursery school provision could mean cuts elsewhere in the education budget, which Mr Patten is likely to resist.

Education ministers have yet to be convinced. 'There is not that much objective evidence that it is more cost- effective than doing it in the early years of primary school where there actually is a problem,' said an insider.

The education team has also pointed out that up to 90 per cent of families are already supported by some form of service, either through nursery classes, which account for about 90 per cent of the provision, or child minders.

Part of the cost of enhanced provision could come from cuts in grants to local authorities. They have no statutory duty to provide nursery education, and care is patchy. Directly funding nurseries by offering vouchers could help to tackle wide differences in the costs of providing places.

It is estimated it costs pounds 400 a year for a playgroup place and an average of pounds 1,700 in state nursery schools. Some private nurseries charge pounds 5,000 a year.

However, most parents would have to top up the costs themselves. Ministers compared the self-help in nursery schooling to the provision of repayable loans to students in further education.

'Nobody is suggesting we should have compulsory schooling from the age of three. You could make a contribution at a very low level. We are already doing that with family credit,' the source said.

In his autumn Budget, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, announced a new allowance, worth pounds 28 a week per family for those on family credit, which will be available from next autumn. Mr Clarke said it was intended to answer rising concern about the causes, consequences and costs of the growth of lone parenthood. Many such parents were trapped, unable to work because of the costs of child care, the Chancellor said. 'That cannot be right.'

The decision to target more resources at parents with under-school-age children reverses dramatically the policy adopted by Baroness Thatcher who, in spite of bringing up twins while pursuing a political career, rejected help for working mothers on the ground that it encouraged the break-up of the family.

Mr Patten has been under sustained criticism from Tory backbenchers after policy retreats, including testing and the 'mums' army' of volunteer teachers. Leading calls for the Secretary of State to resign, Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokesman, said: 'He has overstayed his welcome at that Department. He seems to have the opposite of the Midas touch. Everything he touches seems to turn to stone.'

She warned that Mr Patten would be facing sustained opposition to the Education Bill in the Lords where, out of 35 speakers, there were only four who supported the proposals on ending the monopoly of the National Union of Students and streamlining teacher education. 'He is becoming increasingly isolated and in a very tight corner,' Mrs Taylor said on Sky Television.

Mr Major signalled his plan for wider availability of nursery education in a pre-Christmas interview in the Daily Telegraph. He said then that he favoured putting extra money into more nursery education, rather than mainstream education, when the resources were available.