Friday, February 16, 2007

Don’t underestimate the challenge of selling true school choice to the masses

I am afraid that Jamie Martin's YourPlatform article yesterday on school vouchers does not give proper respect to the strength of political opposition to the programme. He notes that there is opposition to the idea that "it gave taxpayers money to the very wealthy when it could be spent on educating the less fortunate" but thinks that "the voucher has to be universal to work, and the bureaucracy of identifying those ‘too rich’ to get the sum would defeat the point of a streamlined system" and that this is not a "particularly terrible side [effect] and more than bearable for the benefits to those less fortunate".

This underestimates the political task faced by those arguing for schools choice. If one were to create a voucher system without the clause inserted in the last Conservative manifesto that prevented parents topping up the value of the voucher you would immediately lose £2,527,250,000 of spending on existing students which would be paid to the 505,450 students, on last years numbers, currently at private schools. This is around 3% of the education budget. While vouchers might well easily recoup that out of efficiency savings this is difficult to sell to the public for a couple of reasons.

First, it does seem implausible it would be possible to entirely abolish government administration of a state funded education system. It is not within the realm of the politically realistic to remove all regulation of education. What about issues like the teaching of evolution, ensuring that what parents buy is a worthwhile education? This would seem necessary if we are to uphold the principle that parents do not have the right to not educate their children.

Beyond issues of standards that should be upheld as parents do not entirely own their children there are the mundane matters of administering a voucher system. Equally, the DFES must add some value in terms of helping schools organise. One does not need to be enamoured of public sector bureaucracy to believe that some of its functions would need to be replicated by the private sector.

Secondly, the public is generally sceptical of the ability of politicians to create efficiency savings. Conservative promises to do so at the last election, despite the means being set out in rather exhaustive detail, were not given much credence. What this means is that we are expected to offer either an extra two and a half billion in education spending over what Labour are planning or to admit cuts in funding in the name of reform. Neither idea is popular.

Vouchers, and school choice in general, are an eminently good idea but little will be served by underestimating the political challenge posed by advocating them. While this system may exist in Sweden it would be a mistake to assume that some notion of consistency will cause the Left to support it on that basis. Conservatives need to get better at making arguments on waste more convincing and an intermediary step, such as more financial freedom for schools, to make the case for reduced state control may be necessary to this end.


Devil's Kitchen said...

"First, it does seem implausible it would be possible to entirely abolish government administration of a state funded education system. It is not within the realm of the politically realistic to remove all regulation of education."

A good post. However, on the above point, how about doing us all a favour (not meant in a sarcastic way) and find out to what extent Sweden has removed control? (I believe that Iceland also has a voucher system.)

Surely, the most sensible thing would be for the government to say something like, "evolution must be taught" but not to enforce the whys and wherefores...


edmund said...

i find it odd that the teaching of evolution is what leaps to mind-given how little and how badly it's taught at the moment. What about making sure they can read or write-this would stik me as rather more relvent and basic! ( I khnow someon whose a director of a major compnay and has a degree from Oxford who did on term of biology in their life) However generally the stanedrds one at least politicaly is a very good point

excellent post

Matthew Sinclair said...

DK, good idea. I'll look into it.

Edmund, I agree that evolution is a rather cliched example. I guess it's just one that makes the news a lot.