Radical pre-school policy change ‘badly mishandled’

Brenda Cannell MHK

Brenda Cannell MHK

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The privatisation of pre-schools was ‘badly mishandled’ and consultation was ‘woefully inadequate’, Tynwald was told.

Brenda Cannell, chairman of the Tynwald scrutiny committee that investigated whether the policy was value for money and met educational needs, said the whole episode had been a ‘profound failure’ in managing the expectations of the public.

Privatisation in 2012 was designed in part to end the postcode lottery of the previous policy, whereby half the population had no access to pre-school provision.

But Mrs Cannell, outlining the policy review committee’s findings, said it was ‘akin to crumbs for all when previously we had half a cake’.

‘It remains the case that the whole episode was badly mishandled by the Department of Education and Children and by the Council of Ministers,’ she said, adding that before the change was announced as part of the Budget in February 2012, the ‘degree of consultation was woefully inadequate’.

The report made five recommendations, four of which were supported by the Department of Education and Children.

But Education Minister Tim Crookall said his department could not support the first recommendation that where a radical change in policy is contemplated ‘efforts should be made to consult upon and debate the change outside the budget process’.

Mr Crookall said the report was an accurate account of the backdrop against which the decision was made.

He said he was sure his predecessor as Minister, Lib Van Peter Karran, ‘took full account’ of the views of those who believed there needed to be a more equitable approach to pre-school provision, while also being aware there would be significant opposition from those able to access the existing provision.

He said: ‘I believe that the then Minister, with the support of the Council of Ministers, made the right decision when he opted not to take this issue out to wider consultation but to make a policy decision and then seek to justify this through the democratic scrutiny provided by Tynwald.’

But Mrs Cannell insisted it should be Tynwald court that determines policy and if that wasn’t the case ‘why are we still here?’. She pointed out that the privatisation had gone directly against the established Tynwald policy on pre-schools.

Mr Crookall said he accepted the £470,000 allocated for the pre-school credit voucher scheme, while not inadequate, ‘was not as great as would ideally have been the case’.

He claimed the scheme had been effective because there has been a high take-up of around 90 per cent, with nearly 25 per cent of families having been able to access the higher level of credit. And he said the early indications suggested that children starting school were doing at least as well as those under the previous system.

The social affairs policy review committee’s report recommends the DEC must aim to design a credit scheme and allocate sufficient funds to ensure no child is denied the opportunity of attending five 2.5-hour sessions a week throughout their pre-school year.

Mr Crookall said this was an aim the department was happy to aspire to but that any decision would have to be taken within the context of the wider debate on means testing and the notion of ‘user pays’.

An extra £0.5 million has been allocated to the credit voucher scheme, using money saved from the introduction of means-testing for Child Benefit.

Mr Karran defended the privatisation policy, insisting he had made the right decision in an environment that he claimed was not reflected in the report. He said the policy had produced a fairer system than the one he inherited.

Tynwald voted to receive the report and accept all of its five recommendations.

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