Harry Brighouse: Why the left should now learn to love education vouchers

'Greater choice can mean more equal education, and it does not involve privatisation or selection'

In a speech to teachers the other day, Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said her policy was based on the "pillars of standards, behaviour, choice".

But the left has greeted the language of greater choice with, at best, a mixed response, seeing it as inextricably bound up with markets and privatisation of public services, which in turn threatens to undermine the fundamental principle of equal access to public services.

The left is wrong to see choice as the enemy of equality. The left's approach to issues of parental choice in education is confused. The left correctly sees the principle of educational equality as a vital principle to guide educational provision. The principle of educational equality says, among other things, that it is unjust for inequalities of prospects for educational attainment to be influenced by the socio-economic class backgrounds of children.

However, parental choice is not necessarily inimical to greater equality of educational opportunity; in fact, there are strong reasons why the left should embrace it. The left is right to reject selection – selection is the enemy of choice, not its twin. Without selection, greater parental choice of schools can be a useful strategy for promoting greater educational equality and higher standards. Designed carefully, a scheme that allows for greater parental choice can promote better and more equal education in ways that do not involve privatisation or lead to greater inequality.

However, for it to do that, the present Government must fundamentally rethink its approach to parental choice in education. Some proposals in the current White Paper, such as expanding the specialist-schools programme and increasing the number of secondary schools run by religious foundations, actually undermine choice and equality.

Specialist schools have the power to select 10 per cent of their students by aptitude for the specialism. Faith-based schools can select on the basis of interview and are allowed to prefer students on the grounds of their parents being serious members of the faith governing the school. Although schools are not supposed to use information gleaned in that interview other than information about the devotion of the family to the faith, it would be remarkable if, having got the information, they failed to use it. The Government's policies are increasing selection rather than choice, whereas the reverse is what we should be aiming for.

What is the case for parental choice? It stimulates parental involvement in a child's schooling, which in turn enhances the achievement of children. Schools are more responsive to the demands of parents if they are vulnerable to the choices of parents – parents need a realistic option of exit to back up their exercise of voice. That competition drives up standards is one of the basic assumptions of pro-marketeers, and there's some evidence for it from studies within the private sector and also, more strikingly, within choice schemes in the public sector. Introducing greater parental choice in the service of spreading educational opportunity, for example through a voucher system, would need careful managing.

Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, has proposed in his recent book, Class War, that the Government should give vouchers to parents to use at the schools of their choice, whether run privately or by the state. His proposal as detailed in the book is rather vague. It seems to be modelled on the nursery voucher scheme, in which a government gives a flat-rate voucher for each child, which a parent can then use at whatever school he or she chooses. The school can charge extra money in addition to the voucher and can select which children to accept.

So the voucher scheme proposed by Woodhead effectively subsidises those who already use private schools, and also there is limited parental choice, because schools, rather than parents, have the final say on where children attend school. But vouchers needn't be like this. We can imagine, instead, means-tested vouchers that are very high for the poor and phase out for households with annual incomes of more than, say, £75,000. We can imagine that all voucher schools have to select children by lottery and have no discretion over admissions.

It's important to note that parental-choice models will require the building of spare capacity into the system – so popular schools can expand to meet increased demand – as well as government funding for transporting poor children.

These are costs, but they are offset by improvements created by diminished admission costs and by having more children in the schools of their parents' choice. In addition, middle-class participation in state schooling is crucial to the effectiveness of the sector. As middle-class parents defect to the private sector, there is less support for state schools, working conditions become worse for teachers and it becomes harder to deliver educational equality.

The Government's attitude to selection is influenced by the view that selection will help to keep middle-class children in state schools. I, however, am confident that a genuinely egalitarian choice scheme would preserve middle-class participation more effectively than selection. Some parents send their children to private schools in order to get them an unfair advantage. But many parents – enough to make a big difference – send them to private schools because they feel they have a choice between private schools and inadequate state schools. This is especially so in some metropolitan areas. They would like to send their children to comprehensive schools. But they do not have that option – substandard secondary moderns are what the state provides – and they feel that in order to get at least an equal education for their children, they have to go private.

An egalitarian choice scheme, with powerful incentives for schools to achieve a social and ability mix, would provide assurance to these parents and bring them, and their children, back into the system.

The writer is a professor at London University's Institute of Education. 'Choosing Equality: parental choice, vouchers and educational equality' is published by the Social Market Foundation

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