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Education policy in 2010

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm

TDS notice: We apologise to our (at maximum 20-0dd) regular readers for the lack of content lately. As you know, many of us are University students, and therefore have other demands on our time. It could be worse: we could have jobs.

By David Weber

This was going to be titled “My views on private education”, but I’m a sucker for expanding notes, as you probably know. Give how much the original note covered policy, I thought it was prime material for analysis of education policy in the upcoming election.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I regard the suggestion of banning private education, as occasionally advanced by the hard left, as an unwelcome distraction, as I do most suggestions that involve dictating to someone how they should spend their money. Invariably, banning something does not simply lead to its disappearance. (This unfortunately renders an old argument, recently resurfaced, of my politics teacher, moot. That is, “as we ban drugs for being bad for society, we have a perfectly valid reason for banning private education.” Which would be a wonderful argument, of course, if there was any evidence that prohibition of drugs actually worked.) Therefore there need to be strong additional reasons beyond simple discouragement to justify banning something, such as the when it threatens the strong moral founding principles of a society (the reason that not all things are ‘pragmatic’, a la Ankh-Morpork).

Having myself escaped a school which was failing me (not the same as a failing school) through the independent sector — and regarding the impulse of a parent to do what they can to help their children as an entirely natural and justifiable one — I do not regard the idea of banning private education at all rational.

To ban private supply of education would firstly not work, as private supply of education is inevitable somewhere down the line, whether through private tutors, extra-curricular material, or simple parental involvement. (Indeed, if we wanted to increase the extent to which certain professions stay within families or elites, banning private education would be a good first step.) And secondly, I feel it distracts attention from the far more important questions of the ways in which State provision of education can practically help society best, which are far more wide-ranging than people tend to realise.

I’d like to start by outlining a basic contradiction that is often at the heart of the debate in this country. People on the left often point out, quite logically in my view, that private education is naturally divisive. It creates a tiered system, which divides people according to their wealth, and grants the ‘monopoly of choice’ (a favoured term of Tony Blair’s) to those with the greatest ability to pay. The result is not only a situation where the best jobs are disproportionately likely to go to the most privileged, but also one of cultural segregation.

However — if you were to suggest in response, that perhaps we should therefore have a system where one can opt out of the State sector, I am willing to bet that the reaction would be even more negative. For whatever the flaws of Private schools, it is undeniable that it indirectly funds State education, as people who go private effectively pay for education twice.

The Voucher system is a favourite alternative of the libertarian right, both in the US, and in Britain. It was favoured by Margaret Thatcher, as recounted in her diaries, as a potential reform to the British education system, but was regarded as politically unachievable. The reasons should be clear: though the system possibly allows for more efficient provision of education through taking the State entirely out of provision, it would only benefit those with the greatest amount of cash, or in other words, simply entrench social privilege further. It relates back to the “private education funds public education” point I made earlier; through abolishing this, the poor would simply remain condemned to the cheapest education available, whereas the rich would retain the monopoly of choice at a discount.

Effectively, the voucher scheme is a tax cut for the richest in society unless the value of the voucher is very, very large. This in itself would be likely to lead to both higher taxes on the rich, and their education fees shooting up, which in turn could lead to a wealth drain on the economy, and the education system becoming less and less fundable. Clearly, a voucher system is either affordable and discriminatory, or unaffordable and unsustainable. Therefore it is not an alternative which would be better.

Talk of a voucher system brings me on to the second model I wish to talk about, which is being half-heartedly appropriated by the Tories in this country, who manage to breathtakingly combine talk of “progressive ideas” inspired by Sweden, and a voucher system. In truth, what Sweden has is nothing like a conventional voucher system whatsoever, and neither is what the Conservatives are proposing, which is significantly less revolutionary than the Swedish system.

The Swedish system is arguably right to market itself as a “world leader in free market education”, but the system is characterised by emulating all of the advantages of a market, such as greater choice and funding that follows the pupil, and removing all of the disadvantages. This is achieved through forbidding the charging of top-up fees, or other admissions criteria, to schools participating in the scheme, with pupil funding being the same regardless of whether it is controlled by the State or independently. The effect of this has been significant, increasing the number of children educated by the independent sector to over 10%, and changing its reputation into a radical alternative for education, rather than a conservative alternative for a privileged elite.

The Tories wish to emulate this model (which would far better be called a single-payer system rather than a voucher system), albeit with limitations, both in the application of the policy and in its scope for reform. Firstly, the Tories do not wish to allow the British freeschools to be for-profit. This immediately restricts the scope of the reform, as it would exclude most conventional private schools in the country, which are very much for-profit. Only charitable arms would be allowed to operate within the State sector. I actually feel this is unnecessary, and misses out what has made the Swedish system as successful as it is in breaking down the barriers between public and private education, and making access far more equal.

Secondly, Britain comes from a far more different place. Prior to the introduction of this scheme in Sweden, there were hardly any private schools. Whereas there are many private schools in Britain, and more to the point, they charge on average 2-3 times the fees that State schools receive per pupil. This would make a widespread signing up to the scheme from these institutions unlikely, even if the Tories did decide to allow for-profit alternatives after all.

A direct comparison is made yet more difficult due to a lack of clear information I have regarding whether or not the Swedish government even allows private schools to charge fees to the parent to begin with. I have seen conflicting information on this, and until I find something more definite, I will remain unclear on this point. But at the end of the day, it appears unlikely that transplanting their system onto Britain’s will lead to a similarly radical transformation, though it could be a positive step.

The third possibility for structural reform is that which the Liberal Democrats favour; a pupil premium. This seems like a fairly simple idea: to increase funding for each pupil from the poorest families dramatically; yet the effect it has could depend very much on a number of factors. For the sake of brevity, I’ll try and structure this by looking at objections, both from the right and left.

An interesting objection that I have seen from the writers at Though Cowards Flinch is that it would lead to further uncertainty from schools over their budgets on a year by year basis. Now, this could theoretically be solved by allowing schools greater freedom over admissions, allowing them to positively discriminate in order to meet their preferred quota of “premium” pupils. This would outrage the middle-class right, for obvious reasons, but it does spark up an old debate about the purpose of the comprehensive system:

Peter Hyman, in 1 out of 10 (well worth a read, if you see it around your local bookshop) points out that the idea behind comprehensives wasn’t only that people would be taught according to the same curriculum, but that there would be a comprehensive social ‘melting pot’ benefiting in learning through their exposure to one another. While the first aim has definitely been more or less achieved, the 2nd is in far greater question, given the fact that the demographic make up of schools’ pupils varies widly, making the job of some schools far different than that of others.

A pupil premium, even if schools were not allowed to have more flexibility over admissions, would at least be a way of clumsily compensating for such demographic discrepencies. But what interests me is what the effect of such a policy would be if you extended it to private schools, as an incentive for them to offer more opportunities to those unable to afford the fees. The Right and left alike might be reconciled to such an idea: it’s like a limited voucher system that avoids the subsidy of privilege, but increases choice.

What is certain is that this is not what the Liberal Democrats intend. Indeed, Chris Huhne’s stated objective when talking about the policy was to “increase State school funding for poor pupils so it matches the private school average”, something which would an extended premium to private schools would work against. And it’s difficult not to see the pitfalls of such an idea: if private schools receive State funding for poor pupils, then it places State schools at a further competitive disadvantage, and could hypothetically lead to some in the middle losing out either way (it has been argued that previous attempts attempts to get private schools to offer more scholarships have had this effect, by driving up fees to those without scholarships. There are ways this can be avoided, however, an example of which being the Purcell School of Music, Bushey, which tailors the scholarship to parents’ finances.)

The policies could be combined — indeed, I believe I am right in saying that the Netherlands, which is the Liberals’ cited inspiration, first came up with the ‘Swedish system’ that so inspires the Tories. But it is clear what the battle lines are for education in the next election — greater choice for the Tories, smarter redistribution for the Liberal Democrats. Personally, I sympathise with both ideas, and can forsee both of them as incomplete solutions. But it’s good to know that opposition has provided a fertile ground for policy in this area — unlike many other areas of policy.

You may notice that I have left out Labour’s ideas for reform. That might be because I have failed to spot any so far, other than ringfencing funding and imposing yet more targets — I don’t view either of those as reforms, merely a continuation of existing policy. It is for this reason that both the opposition parties have my sympathy far more than Labour as far as education is concerned. Rob Brown may be able to put me right on this subject, however, as I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of Labour party policy is far from extensive.

  1. Where have I read this before?

  2. Har har. If you have any… hot from the press articles, you’re welcome to post them up.

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