Tories join opposition to nursery vouchers

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

Education Correspondent

A group of leading Conservative councillors have joined forces to oppose the Government's nursery voucher scheme. They have told the Secretary of State for Education that the plan will lead to lower standards in nursery schools.

The use of vouchers will also penalise those councils which currently spend the most on nursery education, they said in a letter sent to Gillian Shephard earlier this month.

As speakers from all political parties addressed a rally at Westminster yesterday to protest against the vouchers, Conservative opposition to the plans appeared to be growing.

Under the scheme, parents of four year-olds would apply for vouchers worth pounds 1,100 which they would cash in for part-time education at a local- authority nursery school, a private school, or a pre-school playgroup. The vouchers cover only about half the cost of a place at nursery school.

But with most local authorities now controlled by Labour or the Liberal Democrats, some Conservative councillors fear the scheme could be used as a powerful political weapon against them if it affects standards or leads to financial penalties against some councils.

The letter to Mrs Shephard was drafted at a meeting in September by Conservative education spokespeople from Solihull, Coventry, Kirklees, Warwickshire, Hereford and Worcester, Waltham Forest, Derbyshire and Dudley. The councillors say they are supported by their counterparts in other areas.

Under the voucher scheme, the letter says, the quality of education in nursery schools could slip below the minimum acceptable standard. "We doubt [quality] will be provided or enforced with only a light-touch inspection," it says.

The protesters add that while nurseries attached to schools are rigorously inspected, checks on private schools and playgroups would be far fewer. The councillors say it is unfair that the councils which spend most on nursery education should be the hardest hit by the scheme, which will claw back money from local authorities and redistribute it as vouchers.

The unofficial lobbying group is led by Geoffrey Wright, Conservative education chairman in Solihull which, as a borough, stands to lose 90 per cent of the pounds 3m it currently receives in grants for early-years' education. Thelma Karran, Conservative education spokeswoman for Kirklees, said: "In our opinion it seems to be the wrong way round. We should be helping those who have helped themselves."

Mrs Shephard has not yet replied to the letter, though at a meeting with authorities earlier this week she hinted that the details of the scheme could still be changed if necessary.

Yesterday's lobby of Parliament heard that shortages of teachers could also threaten the voucher scheme. Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, released figures showing that there had been an 18-per-cent reduction in trained early-years and primary-school teachers between 1992 and 1994 despite a rise in the number of younger pupils.

"These figures show the lies behind the Government's rhetoric," Mr Blunkett said. "Clearly no provision has been made for the expansion of nursery education through the voucher scheme."