LEADING ARTICLE : Who voted for school fees?

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The Independent Online
SUPPOSE that the Conservatives had fought an election campaign on the following manifesto: "We shall introduce charges for state schools. We shall bring back selection in the style of the old 11-plus. We shall abolish national teachers' pay scales and allow each school to set its own rates." The outcome would not have been in doubt: the Tories would have crashed to defeat. The prospect of paying for state education would have led their own supporters to desert in droves, lamenting the lost traditions of R A Butler and the 1944 Education Act. The return of selection would have been a huge vote-loser: despite the superficial attractions of the grammar school ideal, the number of parents terrified of their children's failure would far exceed the number who expected to celebrate success. The Tories discovered this to their cost when they tried to re- introduce selection to such middle-class areas as Solihull. And abolishing national pay scales? The reaction from teachers would have left parents in no doubt that schools faced years of industrial strife.

No sane political party would ever put such propositions to the electorate. Yet we know that many leading Tories would like to implement them. More, they have created the conditions in which this could happen, without any explicit approval from the voters.

Last week the news came that a Northamptonshire primary school has told parents that they must pay a "voluntary" levy of £1 a week to prevent the loss of a teacher. Do not be deceived by the arguments about the funding of the teachers' pay rise or the stewardship of local authority finances. A levy of that kind has been inevitable from the moment that Kenneth Baker steered his Education Reform Bill through the Commons in 1988. The Act gave schools responsibility for their own budgets, including paying teachers. It made the size of the budgets strictly dependent on the number of pupils. Once the rolls start falling, the money floods out. Serve them right, runs the Tory argument, because falling rolls signify inefficiency and customer dissatisfaction. More often, they signify something quite other, such as rural decline or local people having fewer babies. But, either way, it was a racing certainty that, sooner or later, a school would ask parents to make up the shortfall. Indeed, what has happened in Northamptonshire is not really new. Parents' contributions to school funds - sometimes through levies, more often through car boot sales and the like - have been increasing for years. Parents already help to finance new books, computers, repairs and capital projects. Teachers' pay is just about the only thing left in the schools that is paid for wholly from public funds. How long before the "voluntary" levies become expected? How long before a bill is introduced, as it was for Sunday opening, to legitimise what is already common practice?

Thus people embrace, through their own actions, ideas for which they would never have voted. They are forced into private education, private health, private pensions because of the inadequacy of the state alternatives. They may feel impelled to buy shares in privatised public utilities to get the best return on their savings. (If they don't, their pension fund managers will.) They use their cars because public transport isn't good enough. Nothing to do with us, the Tories can say; people are just making choices.

This, it should be understood, is the Conservative way. Tory ideologists believe that people's preferences are better expressed through the market than through the ballot box. Policy-making should be consumer-led. But, in reality, consumers have no choice because the market can restrict their freedom of action as much as the state can. In reality, the Tories are introducing charges for state education by the back door.

Ministers are already trying to introduce local bargaining to the health service. They would dearly like to do the same for teachers; apart from anything else, it would free them for ever from damaging political rows like this year's, where they have allowed a review body to set new national pay scales, but refused to fund them. Here is an alternative to the Northamptonshire problem: why don't the teachers all take a 4 per cent pay cut? How long before somebody cottons on to that?