Child`s pay

A coalition of child care organisations fears the government’s
voucher scheme could mean the needs of vulnerable children are
neglected. Henrietta Bond reports.

Launching the nursery voucher scheme, Education and Employment
Secretary Gillian Shephard told the House of Commons that vouchers
would ‘widen opportunity for many families, without taking away
anything that parents and their children enjoy now’. However, as
David Coulter from Save the Children is quick to point out: ‘All it
is giving families is an entitlement to a voucher. There is no
actual entitlement to a nursery education.’

Save the Children is one of the organisations in a coalition
which has serious concerns about whether the voucher scheme – which
will entitle every four-year-old to receive £1,100 towards
pre-school education – will be able to provide the choice or
quality the government is claiming.

The coalition – also comprising Barnardo’s, the Children’s
Society, NSPCC, National Early Years Network, National Council of
Voluntary Child Care Organisations and the Association of
Metropolitan Authorities – believes vulnerable children may suffer
further disadvantage unless nursery education is established within
a national policy on early childhood provision.

The scheme is being piloted in three London authorities and
Norfolk, with intentions for national take-up in 1997. To date,
14,400 application forms have been sent out and vouchers will be
redeemable from April this year.

All the pilot authorities feel it is too early to assess the
impact of the scheme on their service provision. Nevil Coulson,
deputy director of education services in Westminster, one of the
pilot London boroughs, says: ‘What we can say is that it certainly
adds extra complexity with a significant set-up effort required.
Although we have seen our way round a number of issues because it’s
a pilot, there are bound to be things we haven’t anticipated – and
no doubt the Department for Education and Employment will adjust
its scheme accordingly.’

Some observers worry that a year is inadequate to test the
scheme, while others say that an authority such as Norfolk is not
typical of the wider picture. More general fears focus on whether
there will be a temptation for schemes currently offering whole-day
placements to move over to half a day and double their income.

Coalition members are worried about Shephard’s plans to have ‘a
light touch inspection framework’ and want to see common standards.
Existing inspection schemes are diverse: day care centres
registered under the Children Act are inspected by social services
every year while an independent school with a nursery class is
inspected every seven years by education inspectors.

The Office of Standards in Education is overseeing the
recruitment of 300 new inspectors, although it is expected that
4,000 will be needed when the scheme goes nationwide. Guidelines
for training are still to be drawn up.

Denise Platt, the AMA’s under-secretary for social services,
fears that social services department inspectors may have to
relieve the burden on their counterparts in education. ‘While we
are keen to see integrated provision of care and education for
early years and a localised system of inspection, we don’t feel
that this is the right way to achieve it.’

Quality of care for all children, including children in need, is
at the heart of the coalition’s concerns. Coulter says: ‘At present
local authorities have a duty to provide day care services for such
children but with the introduction of vouchers, which are funded
from the educational budget, there could be a temptation for them
to see their statutory obligations removed because the child has
the voucher. As the emphasis on voucher-redeeming institutions is
on desirable learning outcomes, the child’s most essential needs
could be neglected.’

It is still unclear how disabled children may be affected by the
voucher scheme. Most providers of early years services are
prevented from discriminating against disabled children under the
Disability Discrimination Act, but educational establishments are
specifically excluded from the legislation. There is a question
mark over how voucher-redeeming institutions will be defined.

Coulter believes nursery vouchers may have a detrimental effect
on children’s services plans. ‘Because the voucher system takes
provision out of local authority hands, in practice it is taking
four-year-olds out of the whole system. So while you can have a
comprehensive plan for ones-to-threes or fives-to-eights, you can’t
ensure that four-year-olds are getting the services they need.’

The National Early Years Network services a network of 300 early
years forums, made up of statutory and voluntary agencies. Chief
executive Judith Stone believes vouchers will contravene the
collaborative spirit of the Children Act by introducing an element
of competition.

‘There have been enormous benefits from forums sharing
initiatives and information. Local authority support for the
independent sector has been incredibly important and local
authorities have benefited from input from community-based
organisations. Although the voucher scheme is only in its early
stages you can see it is putting these collaborations under

So how will the nationwide scheme fare? Brian Jones, social
services assistant secretary at the AMA, says it is hard to
predict. ‘Authorities have understandably been very reluctant to
make a commitment to this scheme. The whole thing needs to be
bedded down more firmly. Until then it’s a question of waiting to
see what comes out at the end.’

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