Education Quandary

'Our daughter is coming up to school age. We would love to send her to private school but can't afford it. Why can't we be given the cost of her state school place to put towards fees?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

Hilary's Advice

Hello, new parents. Welcome to the wonderful world of school and hoary old educational arguments.

What you are proposing is a school voucher system, whereby every pupil has a sum of money attached to them that parents can spend wherever they like. This idea has been around for decades, and has its attractions. It can be seen as a way to get poor children out of bad neighbourhoods, or to get the government off tax-payers' backs.

But imagine this. You get your school voucher, and off you go to the best school on your block to spend it. But so does everyone else, so inevitably that school's fees rise and it gets pickier about whom it will take. Never mind, though. Your daughter gets in, and you stretch your budget to top up your voucher.

But then: oh, dear. One of you loses your job. You can't afford the expensive school any more, only the local, voucher-only one. But this school isn't doing too well because vouchers only cover the bare basics of schooling and no one is investing in, or planning for, all the other, extra stuff - the technology, staff training, specialist teachers - that good schools need. Never mind, things could be worse. And then, suddenly, they are.

Oh dear, oh dear. You have a second child, and he turns out to have speech and language difficulties, but the school can't give him a place because it doesn't have any provision for children with special needs... And then, even worse, you find you have to move to the middle of nowhere in pursuit of a new job, but this area is so remote it doesn't have many young families, so there aren't enough vouchers to fund a school...

In short, vouchers just don't cut it when it comes to providing a proper national school system. And a national school system is something we all need, whether we use it or not, just as we all need a joined-up transport system and good local hospital provision. They are, to use a cliché, the glue that sticks society together - and without them we all come unstuck.

Readers' Advice

I admire your ruddy countenance - which means I like your bloody cheek! The taxpayer provides free education. If people choose not to take advantage of it, that's their problem. Private schools, meanwhile, are already subsidised by the taxpayer with "charity status". Which, I might add, I'd choose to end - and impose VAT on fees as well!
Mark Taha, London SE26

School vouchers are an excellent idea, which Sir Keith Joseph was keen on introducing when he was in charge of education [Sir Keith was Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1981 to 1986]. But even this advocate of free market economics baulked when he realised that the transitional costs of changing from state-controlled schools were more than the state could bear.

It's a great system, but it works best when you are starting a school system from scratch.
Francis Beswick, Stretford, Manchester

The education system and the NHS are a team effort and the members of the team are the taxpayers. We pay and insure ourselves and the vulnerable in our society, and any one of us can be vulnerable at any time in our lives. That's the pay-off. You are not just paying taxes for your own child or mine to benefit. We are helping each other. If you want private education then you pay for it out of your own pocket.

You pay for it because you have the choice, because you have money. For all the faults of our education system, it is probably the best in the world.
Angela Greene, London NW2

Next week's quandary

At 37, I am thinking of taking a year out to do a creative writing MA, but my partner, a college lecturer, says it will be a waste of time and money. He says people with talent don't need these courses, and most of them are only there so that universities can make money from the hordes of people who dream of being writers. Is this right?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 24 January, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser