School vouchers urged for pupils from 5 to 16

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The Independent Online
All parents of children aged between five and 16 should be given vouchers to spend in a privatised school system, a leading academic said yesterday.

Vouchers are being piloted by the Government for under-fives' education and are being considered for post-16-year-olds. However, Lord Skidelsky, chairman of the Social Market Foundation, said the idea should be extended to pupils of compulsory school age.

Lord Skidelsky, a former government education adviser, said: "I would give all state schools the status of legally independent corporations, able to charge fees, just like universities. This would abolish at one stroke the legal distinction between state and private education, the class divide which is unique to this country."

Speaking at a conference in London organised by Politeia, a right-wing think tank, he proposed that vouchers should be means tested "with higher income parents getting less and lower income parents more: that is an earmarked tax reduction for the former and a tax credit for the latter".

The value of the voucher would be set at the current cost of educating a state school pupil. However, Lord Skidelsky envisaged that many pupils' fees would be paid by charities, businesses and schools themselves. "We ought to think of education as a good produced in response to market demand. There are no characteristics of education which require it to be produced by the state."

The role of government would be limited to fixing the years of compulsory school age, drawing up health and safety rules, licensing exam boards, providing statistics on tests and establishing local education information offices.

Lord Skidelsky, a professor of education at Warwick University, said he had every confidence that vouchers would not only give parents more control over school choices but would also raise standards.

Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, told the conference that caution was needed over the introduction of vouchers. "We should not be driven down the voucher road by despair about the failure of the present educational reforms to work. They are making a considerable difference for the better already."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the country should be concentrating on what happened in the classroom and not on the structure of schooling.

Nursery vouchers for the parents of all four-year-olds will be available from next April but ministers have said they have no plans to introduce vouchers for pupils of compulsory school age.

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