By Anthony O'Hear, Professor of Philosophy at Buckingham University, and editor of Philosophy journal.
Back in 1986, Arthur Seldon published an essay entitled ‘The Riddle of the Voucher’. The riddle was to explain why educational vouchers, having seen off all the intellectual and bureaucratic arguments against them the early 1980s, then disappeared from political view. Those who can think back that far will recall that the moral argument in favour of vouchers was that it put control of children’s education where it should belong, in the hands of their parents. They would then be able fulfil their proper role in relation to the up-bringing of their children, a source of both duty and happiness.
This is the situation of parents who send their children to independent schools (and who often make considerable sacrifices to do so), but it is not the case with the 93% of pupils in the state sector, many of whose parents simply could not contemplate independent education. For all the governmental rhetoric of choice, the 93% simply have to go where the state and its bureaucrats see fit, according to its crazily restrictive admissions codes, a situation actually high-lighted by the introduction of ‘free’ schools. For once these are over-subscribed, the rest are left only the option of the very schools the free schools were introduced to avoid.
An independent school which fails to satisfy its customers will close in short order. This is not the case with state schools, whose clientele are not customers so much as suppliants, who have to be grateful for what they get (which, to compound the insult, is actually paid for out of their taxes). Hardly surprising then, that being denied even minimum influence over their children’s education, many parents simply opt out of any interest or responsibility. Hardly surprising that too many state schools, not subject to minimal economic discipline, coast along in complacent mediocrity or worse, the damage compounded by the attempts of successive governments to regulate standards by otiose regulation and ideologically driven inspection.
Free schools represent a small, but significant step in infiltrating some real parental influence within the state sector. Despite vicious campaigning against them from the collectivist educational establishment, who see what they imply, they are proving unexpectedly popular, even (or perhaps especially) in areas of high deprivation. Emboldened by the chink of light free schools offer, it is time for the Conservative party to re-consider vouchers for its 2015 manifesto – or if that word is politically outlawed, some analogous mechanism which grants to all parents real choice over their children’s education. Put in the proper way, once parents understand how it would benefit them and their children, it ought to be a vote-winner.