Friends few and far between

Schools protest: Little support for Government scheme as fears grow that the plan may undermine early-years education
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The Independent Online
Pity the poor nursery voucher. Even in the turbulent and fast- changing world of education there can have been few policies with so few friends.

The opposition parties are against it, the nursery education lobby is against it, many private nurseries are against it. Rumour has it that even the Secretary of State for Education is not keen. And now a growing number of local authority Tories are adding to the chorus of disapproval.

No sooner had the idea been promoted as a means of delivering John Major's pledge to work towards pre-school places for all than it began to attract powerful enemies.

Mrs Shephard objected to the scheme on the grounds that it would be unwieldy and bureaucratic. In April this year, she said vouchers were "not the preferred option", backing instead a system under which local authorities and private agencies would bid to provide places. But by July, support for vouchers from the Prime Minister and Chancellor had forced her to back down. "Purchasing power in the hands of parents will stimulate a real market in the supply of places that parents want," she said as the plan for vouchers was announced.

The main problem with vouchers is that they are expensive because they subsidise parents who are already paying for private nursery provision. Most of the cost will be clawed back from local authorities which will then have to compete with the private providers to win it back again.

Not surprisingly, Conservative as well as Labour and Liberal Democrat authorities have objected, and only three - Westminster, Wandsworth, and Kensington and Chelsea - have signed up for a pilot project.

Those authorities which currently spend most on nursery education have the most to lose. But even some who stand to gain have reservations. A preliminary survey by the Independent Schools' Joint Committee on Assisted Places revealed that only one in three private-sector heads in favour.

Susan Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks Ltd, which owns and runs five London nurseries, has said that the financial risk involved in setting up new schools will deter all but the bravest entrepreneurs. She points out that the voucher does not contribute at all to building costs.

The playgroups, now renamed the Pre-School Learning Alliance, threatened to pull out of the scheme because they were told they could only redeem their vouchers for pounds 550 each. When ministers backed down, adding an extra pounds 100m to the total pounds 700m cost, the alliance still had objections despite the welcome injection of cash that vouchers will bring to its members. Its administrator, Margaret Lochrie, said it would create unwelcome competition and would not provide for adequate teacher training.

The nursery lobby is also concerned about teacher training and says the quality of nursery schools could be affected if rigorous standards are not applied. Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts, has objected because the scheme only caters for four year-olds, making it likely that schools which currently offer places to three year- olds will cease to do so.

The scheme does, of course, have some powerful supporters - attracted by its competitive edge and the fact that it will take funds away from local authorities, only a handful of which are Tory-controlled - but two of its strongest advocates, John Redwood and Jonathan Aitken, can no longer offer their backing from the strength of positions within the Cabinet.