HC Deb 20 June 1978 vol 952 cc200-3
10. Mr. Ovenden

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what requests she has received from local education authorities for permission to introduce experimental education voucher schemes.

12. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent consultations he has had concerning the educational voucher scheme.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I have received no requests and had no consultations about the introduction of voucher schemes.

Mr. Ovenden

My right hon. Friend is aware of the decision by the Kent education committee to go ahead with this ludicrous waste of educational resources. Does she not regard it as a strange sense of priorities that an authority with one of the worst teacher-pupil ratios in the country and an abysmal record in nursery education, and an authority which cannot afford to reintroduce free school milk in junior schools, can afford to go ahead with schemes such as this?

Mrs. Williams

I find the position amazing. Kent is third from the bottom in nursery provision in the country as a whole, it has a lower average of pupil-teacher ratios than the average of counties, let alone the average in the country as a whole, and it has refused to provide free school milk for primary school children. Yet that county now seems to be able to consider bringing in a ludicrous voucher scheme which would produce nothing but a waste of money.

Mr. Beith

Has the right hon. Lady received any clear indication at all from the Conservative Front Bench that it wishes her to embark on this public expenditure?

Mrs. Williams

I have received a most enjoyable cacophony from the Conservative Front Bench. The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), true to his normal backing of all reactionary ideas, has indicated that voucher schemes are a first-rate proposal for turning the clock back in education. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who has a rather more balanced approach to education, indicated in a recent "Panorama" programme that he was far from enthusiastic about the voucher scheme and used language with which I could not more agree, that We cannot turn the education system upside down. We cannot take risks with children's education. I say "Amen" to that.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Why is my right hon. Friend so gentle with the Conservatives? Does she not recognise that this is yet another political gimmick by the Friedman centre of the Conservative Party, which is trying to introduce the cash nexus into British education? Will it not be rejected at the forthcoming General Election in common with the rest of Conservative policies?

Mrs. Williams

What amazes me about the voucher scheme is that the very study that was undertaken in Kent indicated that as a way of meeting parents' wishes this was a foolish and administratively inefficient way of proceeding. Therefore, even on the arguments advanced by the Opposition, this is an absurd aberration and an absurd experiment. Anybody who studies the scheme, as I have done, will see that as a recipe for overcrowding some schools, overstraining them and leading to wasteful expenditure on temporary accommodation, while other schools are under-used, it is a totally irresponsible proposal and no sensible education spokesman would dream of advocating it.

Mr. Aitken

Before the right hon. Lady is overcome by her eloquence in criticism of Kent, will she reflect on one very important statistic contained in what more fair-minded observers would regard as a very interesting experimental study by Kent? It is to the effect that 90 per cent. of parents among those questioned in the survey wanted the greater freedom of choice which an educational voucher system might provide. Even if there are administrative difficulties, should there not be a rather more constructive approach to an experiment along the lines suggested by Kent?

Mrs. Williams

What the hon. Gentleman does not appear to appreciate is that the study undertaken for Kent indicated that, as a way of meeting parental choice, this was neither an efficient nor a sensible system for undertaking such a scheme. If the hon. Gentleman had read the survey, I am sure that he would not follow that particular route.

Mr. Arnold Shaw

Will my right hon. Friend make clearly known in advance to authorities which might take up this experiment the tremendous cost involved, as she illustrated in an answer she gave to me last Friday?

Mrs. Williams

Yes, indeed. It is difficult to make any clear estimate, but the estimate that Kent made for a single division of a county with 14 education divisions within it was the sum of £600,000. That is for one division of one county out of 100-plus education authorities. That would give no advance at all. That is the basic administrative overload cost of running a voucher system. If the system were to be extended to independent schools, because the voucher would be payable to every parent with a child in an independent school the cost could be as much as £400 million. That seems to be a very strange way of spending scarce education resources.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Instead of worrying about the mote in my eye, would not the right hon. Lady be better occupied in thinking about the Benn in her own? If she is so strongly against the voucher, on which apparently she has a totally closed mind, why does she not put forward proposals of her own for extending parental choice and influence, since the overwhelming majority of parents interviewed in the survey declared that the policies of the present Government and the Secretary of State for Education and Science were denying them the freedom of choice which they wanted?

Mrs. Williams

On the first matter mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I noticed that in a recent "Panorama" programme he said: An experiment is going to be quite expensive, and if it was introduced generally it would cost a lot of money, and that creates great difficulties. That hardly sounds like an enthusiastic welcome to the voucher system.

Secondly, the parents who responded in Kent and who said that they were anxious to have much more parental choice were responding in the most selective county in the entire country. What we on the Labour Benches have always argued is that a strictly selective system does not give parents a choice at all. In three-quarters of the cases it reduces the choice because children have to go to the secondary modern school.

Thirdly, contrary to much talk on the Opposition Benches, I should inform hon. Members that we have asked all authorities to provide prospectuses of information for parents. We have indicated our acceptance in principle of the Taylor Report on parent governors. If I may give one example relating to Kent, that county has totally turned its face against the appointment of parent governors to governing bodies in that county.