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Graham Evans MP: Why we need a voucher system for schools

GEGraham Evans is Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale. Follow Graham on Twitter.

Progress is the hallmark of Great Britain. To explore, to innovate, to push boundaries. There is no greater mission than to educate our children to think and dream. For that reason I have always been an advocate of progress in education – drawing on the great work of teachers here and abroad, building on the education acts of 1944 and 1988 to provide the best for all our children, no matter their home lives or abilities.

That is why I welcome the core concepts of The Centre for Market Reform of Education’s (CMRE) latest discussion paper, Creating a Functioning Education Market in England, which draws on Gabriel H. Sahlgren’s book Incentivising excellence to examine how we can learn from the international experience of school choice to improve educational standards in our system.

I am very proud to have been involved in the set-up of the Sandymoor Free School in my constituency in 2012 which is now providing rigorous and academic education for its pupils and raises the bar for surrounding schools. The concept of education as a market with supply side dynamics does, on face value, sound odd, but the concept of choice is not a new one – this is the legacy of the ’88 Education Reform Act which saw the introduction of City Technology Colleges and Grant Maintained Schools produce the first concept of “choice”. But the speed at which these concepts have gained ground is slow. To some the introduction of Free Schools has seemed like a sudden revolution, but in reality the competition they create – forming the groundwork for Britain’s first education market – has been 25 years in the making.

So what is the benefit of choice? It means schools do not receive an automatic supply of pupils to maintain the status quo. It is all too hard to turn around failing schools, as we all know, when students and funding don’t stop coming. By removing the guarantee of pupils, schools are forced to compete for their intake. They must all look at the needs and expectations of pupils and parents – consequently driving up educational achievement across their area.

However, even when given a choice, people often still opt for the default local school even when there are several options within a close proximity to each other. So how can a real market dynamic be achieved? Gabriel H. Sahlgren, author of CMRE’s latest publication, argues that further deregulation of Free Schools and the introduction of a voucher system to provide direct funding for each pupil could be the answer. Each school would then draw direct benefit from every pupil they enrol – incentivising the growth of high performing schools and driving up standards in all schools as they adapt to a more competitive environment. Each pupil would receive proportional support and parents would be encouraged to take control of their children’s education.

As the MP for Weaver Vale, I deal with affluent areas and others with 50% child poverty rates. It is clear to me that one size does not fit all when it comes to education, and it is still the case that not all children get the specialised focus or care that they deserve. This Government has committed to tailoring funding to provide specialised support through the Pupil Premium, but it’s not nearly nuanced enough. Furthermore, the current system of funding for schools to address additional pupil needs is complex and deeply bureaucratic, sometimes taking years to adjust to changes in the economic background of pupils moving through schools. If we adopted a differentiated voucher system, taking fuller account both of socio-economic background and learning needs, and making schools accountable to parents for how that voucher was spent, as suggested by CMRE, then that funding would be direct to the school each year (ensuring greater accountability to the market), while enabling schools to address the individual needs of pupils much more directly.

I welcome so much of the innovative work that the Department for Education is undertaking: creating teacher accountability, promoting Academies, enabling Free Schools and tailoring funding for those who need it the most. But I want to see us push these reforms further, to build on these steps, and by considering radical ideas such as Sahlgren’s to create an education system that serves every child.

> Incentivising excellence: school choice and education quality was published last week by The Centre for Market Reform of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The author’s policy recommendations for the English education system are given in a discussion paper, available to download from


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