Parents are promised £400m 'better schools passport'

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The Independent Online

Parents given education vouchers by a future Conservative government would be allowed a far greater choice of inner-city schools in which to spend them under a scheme outlined yesterday.

The party's plans for a "better schools passport" would mean spending £400m on increasing inner-city school places by 10 per cent.

Damian Green, the shadow Education Secretary, told the conference that the proposals would "revolutionise" Britain's education system. "We will allow parents and other groups to create new types of school within the maintained sector," he said. "What sort of schools? All sorts."

The passport, which would give parents a voucher to spend at a state, private or voluntary-run school, would be tested in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool before being expanded nationwide.

Mr Green said: "Quite simply, these passports will give the money that the state spends on their child's education to the parents, and let them decide in which school it should be spent.

"It will be a passport to a better school for all children. It will offer a radical extension of school choice. It will allow all children to aspire to an excellent education."

He added: "Our scheme will give parents access to new schools, funded by the state but run independently, to meet the needs of those parents who can't find the right school for their child."

Mr Green said the passports would encourage good schools to expand, pay for parents to send their children to private schools and allow voluntary groups to set up new schools where parents demanded it.

Mr Green also used his speech to reiterate the Conservative pledge to abolish university tuition fees.

He told delegates: "Education used to be regarded by the pundits as a Labour issue. Well, no more.

"We now have schools where teachers are sworn at and assaulted. We have classrooms where teachers are afraid to innovate because Big Brother has told them exactly how to do their job. And we have universities where quantity has replaced quality as the main driving force.

"At the next election we will offer a real alternative."

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, said the proposal would cut school funding and resurrect the Assisted Places Scheme.

He said: "It gives no choice to most parents and would create just a few assisted places only in a few inner cities. The Tories say they would take £400m out of the education budget, but they don't say where the money would come from. They are already making 20 per cent cuts across the board, so what have they got left to cut?

"Labour is on the side of choice for the many, not the few. We are providing more money for popular schools to expand to give parents more choice. We have also passed legislation that enables schools, parents, churches, charities and voluntary groups to set up schools. The Tories are way behind the times, they need to catch up with where we are."

He said that under Iain Duncan Smith the Tories were "more elitist and extreme than ever".

'State schools would be damaged'

By Sarah Cassidy

The Conservative Party's "better schools passport" could pave the way for a nationwide voucher system which would give parents state subsidies to buy places at fee-paying schools.

But because parents will be banned from topping up the vouchers with their own money, independent schools will have to offer bursaries to poor pupils to prevent the policy failing.

Teachers' leaders warned that the proposal would damage state schools and said that the state should not be subsidising parents to send their children to private schools.

The scheme would give parents the value of their child's state education ­ about £3,800 a year ­ to spend at the school of their choice. The Tories hope this would create more choice by encouraging private companies, voluntary groups and parents to start low-cost schools.

They have looked with interest at a voucher scheme in Milwaukee, US, which has been praised for boosting the results of deprived children. Critics argue that it would not work in Britain where higher costs and greater regulation would make it difficult to run an independent school on vouchers alone.

They also say that giving pupils a "passport" out of inner-city schools does nothing to improve these schools. Children whose parents do not have the time or energy to shop around will end up at the local "sink" school.