A lesson in choice: how to use the private sector to help improve state education

Share
Related Topics

Education moves to the centre of the political stage this week as Conservatives and Labour turn to the independent sector to help rescue failing state schools. Choice is once again the political mantra, but, unlike the parties' health proposals, there are genuine philosophical differences emerging, despite the reliance on closer collaboration between private and public sectors in both sets of proposals.

Education moves to the centre of the political stage this week as Conservatives and Labour turn to the independent sector to help rescue failing state schools. Choice is once again the political mantra, but, unlike the parties' health proposals, there are genuine philosophical differences emerging, despite the reliance on closer collaboration between private and public sectors in both sets of proposals.

For once, the Conservative policy is the more interesting. The Tories are suggesting that all parents will be given a voucher worth about £5,000 (an increase on an earlier version) that can be redeemed at the school of their choice. Unlike their flawed health passport plan, it cannot be used to subsidise those already turning to the private sector since it may not be used as a part-payment at a school charging fees above this level.

This is a bold way of expanding choice. It is not a panacea, since successful schools will remain oversubscribed, and there may not be private alternatives in areas blighted by inadequate schools. And since it takes time to set up schools, this is a policy that could take many years, perhaps even decades, to force substantial change. But there are a couple of private companies already waiting in the wings to set up cheaper independent schools across the country, and, inevitably, more would follow. In some areas, fed-up parents would establish their own schools.

Additionally, this approach has been shown to have worked in the United States, offering a genuine alternative to third-rate public schooling in some of the most deprived urban communities, despite its patchy record when tried once before in the United Kingdom. As a means of empowering parents, this is an idea worth considering - although it is wrong, as the Conservatives suggest, to abandon all targets and give schools free rein to set their own admission policies.

There is cause to be wary of another proposal emanating from the Conservatives - the abolition of independent appeals panels in cases of children excluded from school. Michael Howard, as a lawyer, should realise this plays into the hands of his profession, which will take these cases to the courts. It has been suggested there will still be an appeals process in place - to the school governors - against a head's decision. That misses the point: it is not independent. By all means, curb the powers of the panels and insist that no violent pupil is returned to the same classroom from whence he or she came; but do not abolish them.

Labour's proposals are less radical. Tony Blair is anxious to see an expansion in the number of private schools involved in the running of the state sector. Dulwich College and Oundle have already put their names forward to back this idea by supporting his City Academy programme, in which failing inner-city state schools are closed and re-opened as privately run establishments with state funding.

Mr Blair wants to extend this proposal to 200 schools rather than the 60 envisaged at present. But setting up Academies is costly, with the state contributing as much as £8m per school for new buildings, and there is an argument as to whether this is the most cost-effective way of improving standards. And while there is an urgent need for intervention in the areas Labour has selected so far (Hackney, Lambeth and Manchester among them), the argument against so much concentration of funding on a single school becomes more persuasive as the scheme expands.

Both parties, however, should be wary of falling into the "private good, state bad"' trap. It is worth pointing out that one of England's top-performing state schools, the Thomas Telford specialist technology college, is also having a dramatic effect on improving standards in neighbouring schools by getting involved in the running of them. It is simplistic and wrong to just rely on the private sector to bail the state out. But it is right to try to bring the two sectors closer together for the benefit of all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor