As long ago as 1972 politicians were promising significant improvements in the supply of places for three- and four-year-old children in "nurseries" - a catch-all for playgroups, infant school reception classes, dedicated nursery schools. (That date is not chosen at random, of course; it was when a Tory education secretary called Margaret Thatcher promised a free nursery place for all children.) Since then, demand has significantly risen. Many more women now work outside the home full- or part-time. Many more parents are concerned that, before starting formal school, their children have acquired useful habits of learning and living with other children. Meanwhile debate has raged over what should be the balance between teaching young children, say, numbers or letters, and merely caring for them in a stimulating but non-academic environment: the former surely demands a trained teacher; the latter could be carried out perfectly well by a much cheaper kind of carer. Parents are the best judges of how soon schooling ought to take place. They will differ - which is all the more reason pre-school provision should be a variegated and local mixture of public, private and voluntary sectors rather than some uniform national scheme.
As the Government's own Green Paper of August acknowledged, British employers have shown themselves remarkably uninterested in developing child care at work even when offered tax incentives. As a stream of think-tank papers - not all of them from the loony right - have pointed out, fiscal conditions for families have deteriorated. All of this adds up to a strong case for increased public support for care/education for children of three and four outside their homes. The remarkable thing is that on that proposition there is not only a huge national consensus but clear agreement between the principal political parties.
But instead of building on consensus, what we have is deliberate divisiveness (and Labour must carry its share of the blame for that). For many years the right has been fixated by vouchers. Advanced as the panacea for every educational ill, the right's belief has been that in their role as educators of their children parents were ultimately like buyers of groceries. But the heart of the voucher case is that parental pressures will call forth new and better schools. Unexpectedly the Tory voucherists were given a chance to see their dream realised in pre-school provision. In theory this ought to be fertile ground for them. It should be easier for private businesses to set up nurseries than full-blown schools subjected to stricter quality controls.
But even ideologues realised that no one quite knew how parental choice would work, especially in conditions where there was effectively no extra money and the vouchers were going to be paid for by subtracting from the educational grants already paid to local authorities. So we have had a pilot scheme, which started in four local areas in April. The novelty and value of such an experiment can hardly be exaggerated and Labour councils were, typically, blinkered in refusing to take part. How often in recent years has some great national policy been promulgated - the poll tax being the key example - without being tested locally in the diverse conditions of how people actually live? Gillian Shephard, who has shown herself to be a flexible and capable education and employment minister, should have been able to learn from the local outcomes in order, one might have thought, make her own eventual national policy more effective.
But no. That is not how modern government under the Tories works. Nursery vouchers were tested in Westminster and Wandsworth, Tory controlled-local authorities that would bend over backwards for the sake of the party. But even they have reported major problems. Voucher money has not produced extra places, and that is despite various sweeteners and incentives. There are also real difficulties in ensuring that what is offered is any good. Take-up has been unpredictable.
None of that means the idea of vouchers is vanquished. What it does say, strongly, is that a period of evaluation and further thought is now called for. If Gillian Shephard were an honest politician sincerely concerned for the well being of children now and into the future, she would already have tried to maximise the common ground between her and Labour's David Blunkett. What she must do now is pause, regroup and abandon that party selfishness which wants to embed a controversial policy before the general election. The experiment has a further six months to run. Let it run its course. Gillian Shephard should look up a paper published today by the Tories' very own Centre for Policy Studies which says clearly, no names, no pack-drill, that in recent years public policies have too often been badly drafted and ill prepared. Nursery vouchers ought not to be another example.Reuse content