State school parents 'should have to pay'

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The Independent Online

Parents should pay up to £5,700 a year for state secondary schooling for their children if they can afford it, an influential think-tank will recommend today.

A paper from the Social Market Foundation says that paying for state education is the only way the Government can realise Tony Blair's ideal that state schools should be funded on a par with private schools.

In the pamphlet, Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Brighton College, the East Sussex co-educational boarding school with fees of up to £11,700 a year, argues that parents are already willing to pay thousands of pounds a year for their children to go to a good state school.

"At present it is the middle classes who gain disproportionately from the free state education at the better state schools by paying for it through high premiums on houses in catchment areas of popular state schools," he says. Many pay up to £40,000 extra for their homes in the Home Counties to make sure their house is near a top-performing state school.

Mr Seldon argues: "A much better policy would be to free up the money that is spent on competing for places in good schools and spend it on improving schools."

He suggests a scheme in which parents would make a contribution towards their child's secondary schooling if they earned at least £25,000 a year. They would pay full state fees if their combined income exceeded £60,000 a year.

"Is it tenable any longer in the early 21st century for parents who can afford to pay for a part of their children's secondary education not to do so?" he asks. He says contributing would be one way of ensuring that the Blair government went down in history as one of the most radically reforming administrations in the history of state education.

"Parents in more affluent state schools are already contributing to their schools directly, not only to buy more textbooks and equipment but even to help pay wages and salaries," he argues. "Parents of state school children are willing and eager, when they can afford to do so."

The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations estimates that well over £100m a year is collected by parents to go towards the cost of their children's schooling.

Mr Seldon says: "There is no moral reason why they [parents] should not be paying and several reasons why they should be paying, not least because it is wrong that parents currently paying for their children's education at independent schools are also paying through their taxes for the children of other middle-class parents to be educated at state schools. It is a puzzle that there is not more middle-class anger at this injustice."

He adds: "The injustice is at its most immoral and vulgar when middle-class parents move their homes into the catchment areas of grammar schools and popular comprehensives, thereby denying places to needy children from less advantaged homes.

"What is particularly nauseating is when those same parents claim the moral high-ground and boast of not sending their children to fee-paying schools. Every parent in Britain should be means-tested and should pay an escalating amount, over a 10-year period, to their children's education."

He argues that fees should be charged only for state secondary schooling to begin with but extended to cover the cost of primary schooling at a later date.

That would be the only way the Prime Minister could realise his aim – declared at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference – "to get to a situation where we have a state education system which is as good in its facilities and investment as the independent sector".

Figures cited at the time showed £3,690 was spent on each pupil in the state sector compared with £5,700 on each day pupil in the independent sector. To bring the state figure up to the level of the independent sector would mean an increase in annual government education spending from £23bn to £40bn. The Social Market Foundation is the think-tank selected by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, for a speech in which she outlined her plans to modernise the teaching profession.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Education and Skills said yesterday that plans to charge for state education were "nowhere on the radar", adding: "We believe state education should be provided free."