Vouchers rise from deathbed

Education/ scheme reborn
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The Independent Online
THE education voucher was officially declared dead 12 years ago at the Conservative Party conference by Sir Keith Joseph. But the diagnosis of the then Secretary of State for Education seems to have been premature, and now they are enjoying a new lease of life.

The idea of the Government issuing credit notes for the cost of education must be one of the most resilient ever generated. Now ministers are being pressed to adopt vouchers for nursery education, for 16-19-year-olds and even for university students.

Both left and right have adopted the idea at various points in the past 200 years and it has apparently died and risen from the ashes many times. Yet it has only ever been implemented on a small scale.

The right find it attractive because they say it can help parents to use state money to buy education in private institutions. They believe vouchers will allow the market to dictate which institutions flourish and which wither and die.

The left, on the other hand, think vouchers could be great levellers. They point to a scheme in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where poor children are given vouchers for private schools. University vouchers are also attractive to the left because they could aid expansion: some people hope that in future all adults could receive vouchers entitling them to three years' higher education.

The first reported sighting of the phenomenon was in 1792 when the radical Tom Paine published The Rights of Man. He argued that the best way to provide free schooling was to give parents the purchasing power to buy it. The idea re-emerged in 1926 when Cardinal Francis Bourne hoped vouchers could be used to maintain Catholic schools. After that it sank without trace until 1955, when the free-market economist Milton Friedman gave it his backing.

In the 1970s there was a flurry of voucher activity culminating in the launch of a group called Friends of the Education Voucher. A few years later Kent County Council sent deputations to the US before drawing up plans for a school voucher scheme in Ashford. It dropped them again when it realised it would cost up to £1.1m a yearbussing children to the schools of their choice.

Sir Keith Joseph was not put off by Kent's experience. In 1981 he said he was "intellectually attracted" to the idea of vouchers, but officials in his department convinced him they were not practical.

But there were small groupswho kept breathing life into the idea, and now it seems that their efforts have borne fruit. This time vouchers might even survive long enough to come of age.