….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.