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August 05, 2005

Why Education Vouchers could be the policy to save the Tories - if enough new schools are encouraged to open

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs argues that education vouchers could be the policy to save the Tories - they are both morally right and popular. They could transform educational standards in the UK. There is, however, one problem they may face. There are simply not enough good schools to meet demand. Without new schools, the vouchers will not be a sufficient mechanism to improve schooling in Britain. For an education voucher scheme to work it must be coupled with strong incentives to establish new schools. Harry Phibbs concludes that: "Those opening new private schools are heroes. They should be treated as such". The views in this article are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The big idea that the Tories need - to show that they would make a positive change to the country - is to make independent schooling affordable for the many and not just the few. The Tories seem unaware that there could be votes to be gained with an Education Voucher policy. It is not that they don't have such a policy. They do. They call it Education Passports and slightly emasculate it by saying the voucher would cover up to 5,000 a year of school fees and you couldn't top it up with your own money (although charities could).

Of course all Tory policies will be liable to change under their new leader. But the problem has been that they kept quiet about this policy during the General Election, fearing it would be regarded as extreme or helping the rich. Interesting then that the Labour Party didn't draw any attention to it either. Perhaps Labour shrewdly spotted the potential appeal of the policy. As it turned out, I doubt it made any odds as virtually nobody was aware of it.

But Labour had spotted an ICM poll carried out for the think tank Reform in July 2003. The question was put:

Some people have suggested that parents should be allowed to use the government money spent on their children's education (around 5,500 a year per child) to send their children to any school they choose, including private schools where they could top-up the fees if they wanted to. Do you think this is ?
55 per cent thought this was a good idea against 29 per cent who thought it was a bad idea. The proportions are the same for Labour voters while the idea is even more popular with Conservatives.

But writing in The Independent just after the election defeat, the Tory MP John Bercow declared:

We still appear to think that the best way to improve public services is to offer people an escape route from them. This is a counsel of despair. Whether in health or in education, a government can subsidise only a minority to go private. Meanwhile, the majority understandably concludes that the party has given up on them.

I responded in a letter to The Independent:

But the increasing popularity of various education voucher schemes in the United States suggests that this is not the case. The percentage of parents who sent their children to an assigned public school declined from 80 per cent in 1993 to 76 per cent in 1999 and the trend is expected to continue. It is quite likely that in years to come most American children will be privately educated. In a 2002 study of New York City voucher recipients, researchers found that standardised reading and maths test scores for black children who had used the vouchers (worth up to $1,400 each year) to attend private schools for three years were 9.2 per cent higher than those of their black peers who did not attend a private school. Vouchers have also stimulated improvements in the state sector. In Florida, where vouchers are offered to students in chronically failing schools, a study has found state schools facing the competition of vouchers made the greatest improvements.

So the Tories should be clear that education vouchers are popular and morally right. It is a policy to be retained, trumpeted and strengthened. They should get cracking on it now by examining whether it would be possible for Tory Councils to operate their own education voucher schemes locally. If such attempts are obstructed by central government there should be a full scale row about it.

By the time of the next General Election they should be able to point to local success stories for education vouchers as well as international ones. On the demand side there will clearly be no shortage of parents anxious to take advantage of them. It would be sensible to allow greater flexibility by allowing people to top them up. If they are really worried about it being caricatured as a policy to help people sending their sons to Eton they could exclude boarding schools from the vouchers. Perhaps the government could provide "matching funds" to those financing scholarships to pay the top up fees of children from poorer families.

One objection will be that there is already a shortage of independent school places. How will it be possible to cope with the explosion in demand the voucher will prompt. Other countries have shown how it is possible as has the nursery school sector (where parents can claim back some of the fees at private nurseries from the government).

But this objection does have some force. Work is needed on the supply side. Starting new schools needs to be made a fare more commercially viable proposition. There should be preferential planning rules for new schools. Of course once the policy takes off then the less popular state schools will start to close because they don't retain enough pupils to survive. This will then enable redundant school sites to be sold to new schools. But in the interim, government should actually look at the property it owns that would be suitable for new schools and offer it at a discount to those who agree to start them.

There should be tax breaks for those investing in companies starting new schools. Private schools should be exempt from business rates. Most importantly the inspection regime for new schools should reflect common sense. Ofsted now inspect independent schools as well as state schools. Some of their requirements - such as installing computers to be used by children as young as four - are contentious to say the least. They must be obeyed or the school can be forced to close.

The new requirement that a school must pass its Ofsted even before it opens if especially onerous. Previously inspections were only carried out after a school had been open for a couple of years. Since the departure of Chris Woodhead from Ofsted their inspections have become far less about ensuring the rigour of good teaching and far more about ticking boxes - establishing that there is a policy for this and a policy for that - while the actual teaching is ignored.

Britain desperately needs a proliferation of new schools - whether opened by churches, charitable trusts, parents collectives or private companies. Not all will be good - or objectively good. The market allows choice. We have bad restaurants. But how much better our restaurants than if they were owned by the state.

Of course it is right that there should be minimum requirements in health and safety, and also that inspections ensure minimum standards. For instance if Muslim schools are started they will need to prove that the children who attend them learn to read and write in English. Perversely they may well integrate rather more satisfactorily in British society than those at "bog standard" comprehensives where standards of literacy are so alarmingly low. Those opening new private schools are heroes. They should be treated as such.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist. To read about Harry Phibbs' experiences of being a school governor, see On being a school governor.

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I seem to recall that when the Tories have looked at vouchers in the past, they have found that the devil was in the detail.

For example -

Should vouchers cover only educational costs, or also boarding and/or travel expenses?

Could schools offer a tariff (e.g. extra costs for music, sports etc) or should they be obliged to charge a flat fee?

Should vouchers be issued specifically to each child or on a family basis - so that parents could, if they wished, "invest" more in a particular child?

What would be the administration costs - should there be a national agency like the Child Support Agency or should L.E.As do it?

More generally, what can vouchers achieve that changes in tax allowances and an expanded Assisted Places scheme could not?

I would also be interested to know if there have been any studies in America (or anywhere else) of the relative performance of the types of private school, particulary profit vs not-for-profit - I presume Harry Phibbs is interested in promoting excellence rather than ideology...

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at August 6, 2005 12:24 PM

Innocent Abroad:

You list what appear to me to be a number of relatively insignificant administrative details. None of these issues change the principle do they?

I would have thought that the easiest way to deal with it was to issue cash to each child's parent and let the market deal with the details. Or is that the point you are making when you refer to tax allowances?

Posted by: Bishop Hill at August 6, 2005 10:20 PM

BH, please tell me you haven't got any kids. Please.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at August 9, 2005 09:15 PM
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