Jamie Martin: Vouchers are the only lifeline for Britain's poorest children
David Cameron and the Conservatives need to think radically if they are to correct Labour’s disastrous legacy in education.
There has been much talk in recent months about declining standards in schools, but an excellent recent editorial in The Business really struck at the stark, and simple truth; of all his many failed promises, Tony Blair’s emphasis on ‘education, education, education’ has been the most abject betrayal of those in disadvantaged sections of society who need government most.
The Business focuses on identifying the problem, understandably for its standpoint and readership from the point of view of the failure to produce adequate employees, let alone business leaders of the future. One in four children leaves school functionally innumerate and illiterate; one third of employers has to teach basic skills to new employees; a recent study indicates a grade ‘A’ in 2006 was worth a ‘C’ in 1990. I wish to elaborate on something The Business only touches on; the solution. Only a complete overhaul of the system and the introduction of a voucher system can avert declining social mobility and crumbling standards.
You might argue that the Conservatives tried this before in health, and it is political suicide. But they didn’t and it isn’t. The patients’ passport was a weak halfway house which was easily shot down by Labour claims it helped a rich few opt out not a poor many get better, and David Cameron was right to axe it. A full system of education vouchers would be of most benefit to the poorest parents in the most deprived areas, giving them a power to decide and a freedom to choose of which they can currently only dream.
It is estimated that the current spending on education is £5,000 a child. Taking this figure (its accuracy isn’t important), the system would work thus; parents or guardians of every single child in Britain would be given this sum each year and could take this to any school they wanted. Schools would be given the power to expand and specialise largely as they wished. The parent, acting as an informed consumer, would dictate the standards and variety they wanted and desired. Failing schools would fall by the way side and the best would flourish; there would be no ‘one size fits all’ forced inclusion as institutions offering special needs or disability education found highly fertile conditions for their unique brand of schooling.
The government’s role would be reduced to sending out the money and light regulation of the institutions accepting it. The huge numbers of staff and paper-loads of bureaucracy at the bloated DFES would be abolished and the cash given back to the tax payer perhaps as a parents’ tax allowance or even higher voucher payments.
There would of course be opposition, on two counts; that the system only helped a few opt out into private education, and that it gave taxpayers money to the very wealthy when it could be spent on educating the less fortunate. On the first issue, only a minority of parents, faced with a greater quality and choice in the state sector, would now choose to opt out. On the second, the voucher has to be universal to work, and the bureaucracy of identifying those ‘too rich’ to get the sum would defeat the point of a streamlined system. Neither of these are particularly terrible side effects and more than bearable for the benefits to those less fortunate. Furthermore, the voucher could come with the option of donating the sum to educational charities or schools themselves. I think those on the big government side of the ideological battle would be surprised how many of the wealthiest took this option when confronted with such a fair and open system of funding education.
Social mobility is lower than in 1975, there are a lower proportion of Oxbridge students from the poorest backgrounds than in 1969 and the only OECD member with greater educational inequality is Turkey. The state of the education system available to Britain’s poorest is scandalous. The benefits of better education for the most disadvantaged in terms of economic performance, social cohesion and crime levels are obvious, and they fit perfectly with David Cameron’s social justice agenda. If the Conservative Party wants to offer a genuine hand up for our poorest children, and improve the blighted state of our education system, it has to grasp the nettle of a fully fledged voucher system.