Choice begins in the nursery

Edward Lister argues that his borough's pilot voucher scheme will give power to parents
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Choice is today the most overworked word in the politician's vocabulary. Nowhere is it used more freely than in the education debate.

Education spokesmen from all parties will say they are in favour of choice. But the furore that re-emerged yesterday over the Government's new vouchers plan for the parents of four-year-olds suggests that we have some way to go before we are all speaking the same language.

In Wandsworth, we know exactly what we mean by choice. It is not a spin doctor's soundbite, but rather a simple philosophy that flows from one central premise: it is parents who have the real power to drive up standards in our schools. In our borough, the pilot scheme will give parents of 3,300 four-year-olds vouchers worth pounds 1,100.

At present, we still do not have an education system in this country that puts the parent in control. We have a highly structured system that is the result of decades of central planning and weak knee-ed deference to the teaching unions.

The Government has made great strides towards increasing parental choice. The national curriculum, testing and the publication of school results are all designed to give parents more information about their schools than was ever possible before.

With core subjects guaranteed and greater openness bringing improved accountability, schools have been encouraged to diversify. In Wandsworth, we now have only one old-style comprehensive secondary school. All the others are offering specialisms that emphasise their own distinctive educational approach.

All of these gains have been fought every step of the way by the unions and their soulmates in the Labour Party. It is the same unholy alliance that is now crying foul over the vouchers scheme.

What are they so afraid of? After all, they say they believe in parental choice. But of course they want that choice to be restricted to the current limited range of school types. They do not want poor teachers removed, nor failing schools closed. They are afraid of anything that smacks of specialisation or the dreaded selection.

While the debate centres on class sizes and surplus places in existing schools it will continue to miss the point. For if we are ever to meet parents' proper demands for the right sort of education for their children, then we need more schools. That means new schools of every different type and size. We need different schools in different premises run by different owners. There is only one way to fuel this expansion: by giving parents back the money the state takes from them for their child's education. That's what vouchers are all about.

But this genuine marketplace of schools will also need a new attitude from Whitehall. Civil servants who have spent their careers counting pupil numbers will have to ease off. It is no good giving parents a voucher and then saying it can only be used in the school their children already go to.

Creating a climate in which new proprietors are encouraged to open new establishments will send shock waves through the existing well-protected system. There will be no hiding place for the failing school.

The influence of the teaching unions and their ability to obstruct change will never be the same again. The education service is the last big nationalised industry. Schools are already funded according to precise calculations of pupil numbers. They are now ready to take the next obvious step and receive their funding direct from the customer.

The transfer of funds from the state to the parent would be irreversible. It would benefit all parents - not just those who can afford to pay now, but those for whom there is no real choice under the present arrangements.

The voucher as a symbol of parental choice will be immensely powerful. For many parents, it will be the first time they have been given any degree of control over their children's schooling.

We don't need to create a new wave of Etons and Harrows. Parents' new buying power will, if unfettered by excessive controls, unleash new types of school that we have never previously seen in this country. Schools set up specifically to meet the needs of a particular sector of the market.

The current opposition to the first phase of the nursery education voucher scheme is predictable. For the Labour Party, it is scarcely surprising that they should be so fearful of putting power in the hands of parents when even the modest Assisted Places Scheme attracts their venom. Meanwhile, the LEA chairmen, it seems, are afraid parents might not choose their schools.

Well, that is what choice is about. Trusting parents is a risky business. They might not act the way we all want them to. That's what the people who run education in our local authorities now fear.

But if LEA schools are offering a high-quality service that is well regarded in the community, they will have little to fear. Indeed, the most successful schools always find the threat of competition invigorating.

The scheme is unnecessarily bureaucratic, some cry. Well, what teacher hasn't said the same about every new procedure? The same was said about testing, yet every poll shows that this is what parents want. One of the reasons my council has been keen to be among the pioneers is to have first- hand experience of how it will work in practice. We will be able to ensure that our own schools are fully geared up for the challenge.

We have our marketing strategy in place. Equally important will be the fresh spotlight thrown on the 130 or so independent providers already active in the borough. It will be a vital test of the publicity programme announced yesterday for parents to have access to information about every possible establishment providing nursery education in their area.

The voucher, in common with almost every other Conservative education reform, will eventually win the backing of all parties. Once politicians see how popular is this transfer of power to the parent, they will need no encouragement to join the bandwagon. Owning a voucher will be just as natural as owning shares in BT.

The next few months will show just how streamlined we can make the process of issuing and redeeming vouchers. But the real test is the test of nerve that is still to come. For if we stop here we will have achieved very little. We must extend the voucher entitlement throughout the school system; and, crucially, we must examine the obstacles that still stand in the way of opening new schools. How easy do we want to make it for new providers to emerge? How protective will we be of existing institutions?

Vouchers on their own will not be enough to bring about the real explosion in choice that we are seeking. They will have the effect of changing forever the power relationship between parents and head teachers. But parents will be frustrated if we only provide them with half-choices.

The writer is leader of Wandsworth Council.