Leading Article: A slip on the nursery slope

Click to follow
JOHN Major has not changed. Safe after the leadership election, he tilts his Cabinet sharply to the left, knowing that he owes his survival almost entirely to Michael Heseltine and his allies. Then, almost immediately, Mr Major delivers a consolatory prize to the right, and a very silly one, too. School vouchers, after which the right has lusted for 20 years, are to have their day at last.

Vouchers were originally a left-wing idea. They would be "weighted" so that children from deprived backgrounds carried higher-value vouchers with them. The children would then automatically enjoy smaller classes, more skilled teachers and better buildings and equipment. Vouchers, to some on the left, seemed a more effective way of targeting resources on poor children than drawing arbitrary geographical boundaries and designating "educational priority areas". The Tories have turned all this on its head. Mr Major's scheme to give vouchers for nursery education to the parents of four-year-olds - 90 per cent of whom already have pre-school education - will help the middle-classes, not the poor.

Parents of pre-school children fall into five broad categories. The first group freely choose not to use any form of nursery or playgroup. They need not detain us further though a few, when one of Mr Major's vouchers plops onto the doormat, may think they have got a free gift and rush out to "spend" it. The second group are parents who cannot find nursery places near their homes. Since the voucher scheme offers no money to build new schools or to train teachers or to finance three-year-olds (the biggest losers from the present shortage of places), it is hard to see how it will help them. The third group now use state nursery schools or subsidised playgroups but might aspire to the private sector. Some will decide to top-up the pounds 1,100 vouchers and spend the extra pounds 2,000 or so needed to secure a private place. They will be the only group who just might get a better education for their children than they get now, but they will plainly be the better-off parents. The fourth group comprises those who would pay to go private in any event. They will receive an entirely unnecessary and unsolicited subsidy.

What of the fifth group, the large majority of parents, who will continue to use state nursery schools or subsidised playgroups because they cannot afford or do not want to pay private fees? Here is the comic pointlessness of Mr Major's scheme, which has the flavour of something invented by Milo Minderbinder in Heller's Catch-22. At present, parents take their child to a nursery school; the school then gets its money from the local council. In future, parents will take a voucher as well as the child - and a variety of people will rake in taxpayers' money to design, print, distribute and process the vouchers. Choice, about which Tories babble so much, will if anything be reduced. At present, parents who don't like a nursery school can just take their children to another, if they can find one. Under the voucher scheme, they will no doubt have endless trouble recovering the necessary piece of paper. (Or will they be issued with a book of vouchers to hand in weekly? What happens, in any case, if they lose the voucher or confuse it with a National Lottery ticket? Do the clever young people in the Downing Street think-tank ever consider such things?)

We can take all this calmly and marvel at the absurdity of the parents of every four-year-old in the country rushing around with Monopoly money so that the Tory right can indulge its fantasies about markets. But there is a more sinister interpretation. The not-very-hidden Tory agenda is to coax people into paying more for what used to be regarded as welfare state services, into taking out private pensions, private health insurance, private provision against unemployment. In these areas, a two-tier system is emerging: a very basic state minimum, with extra provided privately. Now, thousands of parents of four-year-olds will get used to the idea that they can "top-up" what the state offers and buy something much better. Might they not, eventually, find the same principle attractive for the compulsory years of schooling? Might they not even begin to demand it? We move here into the territory of thin ends and big wedges, which is not always good grounds for opposing innovation. But anyone who predicts that free state education as we know it can survive another term of Tory rule is a very brave person indeed.