Why Progressives Should Support School Vouchers

This is a guest post by Roo

How can  we give working families genuine choice in education? Choice exists for those blessed with talent or geography or wealth, but for most it’s an illusion. Even where alternatives are available, they’re either carbon copy comps (maybe with a superficial ‘specialism’ in drama) or religious schools requiring regular church attendance until your kid’s ‘confirmed’. The traditional Labour response is “we’ll make all schools excellent so all kids get the best education possible”. The madness of this mantra is never unpacked and curiously, no costs or timescales for achieving ‘excellence everywhere’ are ever given. It amounts to “don’t rock the state school boat, the model’s not changing”. “Education, education, education” was New Labour’s mission; it’s a pity we never discussed how to deliver on it. Elsewhere the Swedes, the Dutch, the Irish and urban black US Democrats all look to vouchers and school choice.

School vouchers would give parents genuine choice if combined with policies enabling new schools to open and existing ones to expand organically. Vouchers would allow parents & kids to match their school to their talents & aspirations. This choice is often made by LEA bureaucrats, whose only real interest is ensuring every child gets a seat in a class, regardless of where that class is, or how or what it teaches. Opening the field to new players could confront parents with many choices – not just ‘specialist’ drama or languages schools, but also traditional/permissive, streamed/mixed ability, grammar/comprehensive, special needs or gifted, on top of existing variants in uniform & gender mix policy. It would facilitate the creation of more excellent non-religious schools, weakening the hold religious schools can have over basically agnostic populations.

By allowing schools to monetise success and pay for failure, we can realign schools to the aim of delivering quality education. Vouchers provide or deny them resources in line with their performance, creating a market in which ‘good/popular’ schools flourish while ‘problem/unpopular’ ones reform or flounder & perish. Conversely, central funding of schools aligns schools to delivering the agendas of LEA & DCSF bureaucrats, while perversely rewarding failure with cash injections. Bureaucrats don’t have the bottle to close failing schools: it’s an admission of failure on their part and gives them a massive headache – what to do with the pupils and staff? Armed with vouchers, parents could close them overnight by moving en masse to better institutions with capacity. Schools with insufficient pupils would close and be taken over by more attractive & effective institutions. Poor families stand to benefit most as they’re most likely to be stuck with failing schools. Teachers would be empowered too: to teach in schools that endorse their methods, to change jobs freely and to start their own schools.

Schools would have an added incentive to challenge bad behaviour: their valuable reputation. They’ll have a financial reason to sort kids’ behaviour, but won’t hesitate to expel disruptive kids who won’t make amends. These kids though will still have a voucher & hence a value to other players in the system. Schools that specialise in turning kids round could emerge.

Vouchers would create financially sound educational institutions that base their continuing success on their reputation rather than on a stream of pupils forced to attend by an LEA. Strong, independent schools would drive better bargains with their budgets and spend their money where it counted; their budgets would be swollen by the savings from eliminating much of the existing educational bureaucracy. Strong, financially independent schools would be able to set their own priorities given their understanding of local economies and communities. Schools would be free to grow, expanding the range and depth of their facilities, opening new classes, even new schools. Schools would re-emerge as significant players in local economies & politics, returning them to their rightful place as centres of local life rather than government outposts, listening largely to Westminster. They could speak with more authority on grades & curricula, serving as a helpful brake on government meddling and wasteful over-regulation. Their independence would help insulate pupils, teachers & budgets from policy swings, gimmicks and ideologues in Government & the Civil Service.

Strong, independent schools would still serve as excellent testing grounds for innovation though. With their reputations to consider, they’d eschew fashion for fashion’s sake while at the same time seeking to exploit any techniques that would assist their pupils and enhance their standing. The system would inspire a huge amount of experimentation in both progressive & traditional teaching methods. It would test competing theories thoroughly, propelling our understanding of what works forward, generating a real national debate based on actual results. Ultimately, we might see educational brands appear, with liberal comprehensives competing for parents & pupils with traditional grammars.

By creating schools that are chosen rather than forced on pupils & parents an element of pride can return to this affiliation. Parents may be enthused by their genuine influence over their child’s future and seek greater engagement with their chosen school. No child need be associated with a failing school for their whole educational career as is all too common now. All children would have the opportunity to be exposed to effective discipline, hard work, well-earned pride, and success. Schools themselves would need to work to survive as institutions and would hopefully pass that sense of mission & urgency on to their pupils. Working families could talk of their pride in sending successive generations to the local school of their choice.

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