Tories offer 'vouchers' to buy school place

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The Independent Online

Parents will be given a "voucher" so they can shop around to buy their children a school place under a Conservative government, the party's schools spokesman has said.

Those from poorer homes whose children receive free school meals would have it topped up with a "pupil premium" thus becoming a more attractive proposition to top-performing schools to take on, Michael Gove said in a speech. The cash on offer would enable the parents to buy a place in any mainstream community school or academy or even a Steiner or Montessori school.

Speaking to the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, Mr Gove said: "We'll give every parent the right to take the money currently allocated to their child's education and then deploy it in accordance with their priorities, not the Government's. Parents will be empowered to choose the school with the pedagogy, the disciplinary approach, the ethos and the philosophy they believe in."

Under the Tories' plans, the value of the "voucher" would vary according to the costs of providing an education in different parts of the country. However, the money could not be used to purchase a place in an independent school.

On the "pupil premium" – a policy also backed by the Liberal Democrats – Mr Gove added: "We want to create a dynamic by which schools are incentivised to take children from more challenging backgrounds and new providers are explicitly incentivised to locate in areas of greater disadvantage."

Mr Gove accused Labour of widening the gap in performance between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more affluent homes. He argued that the Government's "centralised approach to learning of imposing top-down targets" on schools meant they were "increasingly driven by the need to satisfy goals set by the Secretary of State".

His comments were seized upon by Britain's biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, who said the "quasi-voucher" plan would only increase social segregation. "All the international evidence points to the damaging effect of choice and diversity [for parents] on the efforts of countries to meet all children's needs," said John Bangs, head of education at the NUT. He said the Tories "would do far better to focus on improving autonomy of decision-making for teachers rather than boosting a market between parent and parent and school and school".

The Schools minister Jim Knight said: "The gap between rich and poor in our schools is narrowing. Of course, there is more to be done to make this a fairer country for young people to grow up in but we are making big inroads and it is misleading to suggest otherwise."

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