Voucher scheme derided as gimmick

Plans to introduce vouchers for sixth formers, revealed in yesterday's Independent, were dismissed as a gimmick and as a potential disaster by Opposition politicians. The Prime Minister, asked in the Commons about the planned manifesto declined to comment, writes Fran Abrams.

A White Paper to be published next week will announce payment by results for school sixth forms, which will pave the way for vouchers to be introduced after the general election. The change would bring school funding into line with colleges, allowing vouchers to be issued to all 16-19-year- olds.

Alun Michael, Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, asked John Major to "join with the Secretary of State for Education in rejecting the idea of sixth-form vouchers". Gillian Shephard had resisted the scheme but was manoeuvred into accepting it by Cabinet right-wingers, backed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke.

Mr Major did not respond to the comment, choosing to reject allegations that Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, wanted Mrs Shephard sacked.

Labour's further and higher education spokesman, Bryan Davies, also claimed that the scheme had been foisted on Mrs Shephard by the Tory right- wing, adding that it would be "a recipe for disaster". He said: "Vouchers will spell chaos in 16-19 education. There is already a ruthlessly competitive marketplace and this will only make things worse. It is not about choice for students - it is simply right-wing dogma."

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the plan was designed to draw attention away from a crisis in sixth-form funding.

"The early recurrence of the voucher gimmick reveals a flagging government, scraping the barrel for pre-election bribes.

"The nursery voucher scheme has barely had time to fail before the Government is desperately introducing another voucher scheme which is equally ill thought-out, rushed and inadequate." he said.