If you really want parental choice you need a school voucher system but….

….don’t forget the administrative complications

By Robert Henderson

The “free schools” currently being promoted by the Coalition Government (in reality the Tory part of it)  has two flaws:  it mixes private enterprise and public service and is in practice something likely to be of interest to the middle-class .  If greater choice and diversity for all was really wanted it would require a voucher system  which included all parents and guardians and kept private money out of the picture.

I am not ideologically opposed to a voucher system  for  school education  provided the voucher does not end up as a subsidy for private school fees, that is, the voucher should  not be used to pay part of  the  fees of, for example, Eton.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that a  loosening of direct state control of education is in principle a good  thing.  However, attractive as the idea  is,  there are very large  administrative problems involved in moving to a fully-fledged voucher  system.

The most obvious  difficulty is what real choice can a parent have in  practice if they only have two or three schools in their catchment area?  Precious little, because it is unlikely that all will be good. Outside  the larger cities and towns the choice, particularly in rural areas, is  likely to be even more restricted.

Catchment areas could in theory be  greatly widened or even abandoned  altogether,  but neither  is  practical because  few parents and even fewer  children want to be travelling long distances to school every day or meeting the increasing cost of doing so.  In places where there are competing schools a  reasonable distance from a child’s home, a catchment might reasonably be defined as being within a thirty minute journey by public transport.

Allowing popular schools to expand is an  alluring idea but most  schools, and most are in cities and towns,  would have the land to do so  significantly.

The reality for most parents is that, as things stand, they will not be able to exercise significantly more choice than they do presently.

But even where  a school does have the land to expand fresh problems arise. First, where is it to get the money to fund expansion? The individual voucher  will pay for  the tuition, administration and the  maintenance of the  existing school. It will not fund  new buildings.

Who is to pay? The taxpayer? Private investors? If the latter, how would  the private investor be repaid? Out of future voucher proceeds? If so,  that would reduce the amount of money available for teaching, books, computers and so on.

Second, if a school expands it must draw pupils away from other schools  in the catchment area. Those schools at best will be underfunded and at  worst will become unviable. If the former the question why should the  pupils there be left  in a declining school with little morale has to be answered? There is no moral answer. If the latter, where exactly would  the  pupils from a failed school go to get an education?  Not to the  expanded school because that will already be full.

Is there any way to circumvent these  difficulties? A variety of private  options are possible. Parents could club together and use their vouchers  to fund a school of their own in its own premises. But that would be an  unstable  institution because parents would cease to have an interest in  the school once their children left, either through age or because the  family moved away.  Suppose a school had fifty pupils and ten suddenly  left. It could make the school unviable.

Private schools, in their own premises,  charging no more than the  voucher cost could arise, but they would drain pupils from the existing  state schools.

The third private option would be for private investment in existing  state schools. To an extent this is already happening. The problem with  this would be that once the schools have been
placed in private hands  the private contractor will have the option of blackmailing the  government into  paying more or seeing the school close down  leaving  pupils with nowhere to go. This is something which is already happening  in PFI projects generally. Alternatively, the private contractor might  go bust or simply walk away for a contract. Who would educate their  pupils then?

There is a general problem of how to maintain provision if the state  and private sector becomes entwined. Suppose private schools took so  many  pupils that many state schools had to
close.  That would reduce  the default  state educational provision. If there is a severe  depression and private schools really  felt the pinch, many might go to  the wall. Who would run the schools then? The taxpayer would have to  stump up to keep things going.

All of this is rather daunting. However,  we might inch towards a voucher system by degrees. The first thing to do would be to make all  state schools self-governing. This would prepare them administratively  for a voucher system.

The second thing would be to put more money into schools to bring them  up to the mark before a voucher system was introduced. The money should  come from  abolition of LEAs (which would  free up a good deal of money  they spend on their administration and reduce the administration schools have to undertake) and the abolition of all teacher training colleges and departments (teachers would learn on the job).

I would further free up teachers by  reducing the current  age-group  tests to the three ‘Rs’,  making all school exams true exams, that is, their  classification to be simply a final exam mark  with no course work to  count towards the grade and generally reducing the  information sought  by the Dept of Education and Science. I would  also reduce the stress on  teachers by abolishing  league tables,  which  have  merely distorted  the way schools’ operate to the detriment of true education. Government  could control quality by ensuring that the school public exams were of  sufficient standard.

The real answer to our present educational woes is of course a good  school for everyone.  But even if that were possible people would still  have preferences.  The only honest way of deciding who should go to  which school when a school is oversubscribed is to put all the names  into a hat and draw out enough to fill the school .

There is also the question of  the curriculum and  religious schools.  Would it be reasonable to allow schools to set  their own curriculum beyond the teaching of the three Rs?  Would most
people want Creationism taught as science?  I suspect a large majority would not. Nor is the idea of segregation within religious schools an easy question to decide. C of E schools are often
very mixed in terms of faith, ethnicity and race where a catchment area is mixed. However, other  religious schools, especially Muslim ones, are  frequently mono-cultural, that is, comprised entirely or almost entirely of the faith they represent. This is plainly dangerous for social cohesion.  More broadly, should it be government policy to allow vouchers to be used to create what are de facto ethnic minority schools?  The same objection applies as to religious schools.   To prevent ethnic minority ghetto schools a maximum percentage of any school being from ethnic minorities should be made law.

The move to self-governing schools  would multiply the opportunities for fraud and allow  administratively incompetent school managers to get into serious financial trouble without meaning to. Consequently, it would be necessary to put in place a rigorous external  audit regime to keep  dishonesty and  financial incompetence in check and there should be a legal requirement for bursars with the right background in financial management to be appointed by every school.   There would also have to be checks on schools to ensure they were appointing and remunerating staff fairly –  no favouring of friends and relations –   and operating the entry to a school within the legal framework.

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