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

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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.

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