Goodbye, state monopoly

The Conservatives want to give parents more choice of school. Richard Garner asks Tim Collins, their education spokesman, whether this is a move to the right or a way to beat Labour at the polls
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The Independent Online

Tim Collins is in cheerful mood as he prepares for his first Conservative Party conference next week as the Tories' education spokesman. He believes he has now put together all the pieces in the jigsaw that makes up, as he describes it, an attractive "centre right" policy to fight Labour at the next general election. Second, the devotee of Star Trek and Dr Who is looking forward to his beloved doctor returning to the BBC.

Of course, whether or not he has enough time to watch the programme hinges on the result of the election, and whether he becomes the next Education Secretary. If he does, he promises to take a minimalist approach - getting rid of two thirds of the civil servants employed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and cutting out the "initiativitis" that he believes has dominated Labour's period in office. "Education will cease to be laid down by diktat from Whitehall, as will all the paperwork that generates,'' he says. Schools will be given freedom to run their own affairs.

Collins inherited the education brief earlier this summer after a period in which his predecessor, Tim Yeo, was spokesman for both education and health.

Collins was his number two, and at the time there was a certain amount of confusion in education circles over Conservative Party policy. The Tories were known to favour "passports" - vouchers for parents that would allow them to shop around for the school of their choice - but it was not known how the system would work.

On higher education, the Tories were committed to a policy drawn up under Iain Duncan Smith that would see all fees for students abolished. Again, there was no detail about how this would work and how universities would make up the shortfall in money. It was widely assumed there would have to be cuts in student numbers.

Within a few days of taking office, Collins launched the "right to choose" policy for schools which will be the centrepiece of the party's education election manifesto. Under it, parents will be given "passports" - worth £5,500 to purchase a place either at a state school or a private one whose fees are no higher than that sum. In other words, it will not be possible to use the passport at Eton or Harrow but it can be used at some of the new cut-price independent schools like those being set up by Gems (Global Education Management Systems) around the country.

Collins believes it will also have the effect of persuading middle-of-the-range independent schools charging just above the passport figure to cut their prices so they can offer places to state-subsidised pupils. The policy will be coupled with giving extra cash to popular schools to expand. The Conservatives say they will fund 600,000 new school places where demand from parents exceeds supply.

"It will move the education system from one which is based on a top down state monopoly to one where parents will have a real choice about where to send their children,'' he says. "After all, they have real choice when they decide about buying a new car so surely it is not unreasonable to give them the same kind of choice over something far more important - an education for their children?''

One criticism often levelled at the idea is that, although it may benefit parents who have the time to shop around, it may not help children from dysfunctional families or those whose parents may be struggling to survive in areas of deprivation. At this point, Tim Collins becomes animated. "I find that a deeply patronising attitude,'' he says. "It is an insult to decent parents - all of whom want the best education they can get for their children.''

His second big policy initiative was the launch last month of his higher-education package, which confirmed that student fees would be abolished but proposed higher interest rates (of up to a maximum of eight per cent) on student loans. Students, he says, will end up paying back less because their debts will not be so high.

"We've moved from a situation where before our policy launch there wasn't a single vice-chancellor in the land who was prepared to say the Conservatives had the right approach,'' he says. "It was an embarrassing situation.''

Now, he says, they are beginning to be won over. Citing an article by Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, which was favourable, he says that Professor Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group of elite universities, has also welcomed it. Professor Sterling said he liked the idea of matched government funding of up to £18bn for endowments. According to Collins, this would unashamedly benefit elite universities. Of the whole package he says "the devil could be in the detail".

Collins' next task will be to react to the inquiry into 14 to 19 education chaired by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, which is expected to recommend replacing GCSEs and A-levels with a new diploma. Collins is confident that he will be able to back the proposals for sixth-formers because he believes that there will be something at least as credible for 18-year-olds within the diploma as the existing A-level system .

He is less sure about the proposals for GCSE. Tomlinson will drop externally assessed exams at 16, he believes. "I think you still need to have something which is credible for employers for those youngsters who do still leave education at 16,'' he says. "So I am not sure we can go along with that.''

Some in the education world - notably David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers - believes that Collins is marching to a more right-wing drum than his predecessors. "I don't honestly think his freedom for everyone in the marketplace will do anything other than damage the more deprived communities," says Hart. "I don't think there is any doubt about it - we've seen a move to the right.''

Others credit him with an assiduous mastery of his brief. According to one union leader, at least one government minister has confided that Collins is doing the Opposition job well. Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, describes him as "a bright young chap".

Whether that will be enough to get him through the general election campaign is questionable. We won't know until then whether he will be presiding over a slimmed- down DfES or watching more episodes of Dr Who.