Can the Conservatives learn from Sweden's school voucher system?
Another blow for the left this week as the University College Debating Society threw out a motion calling for the abolition of private education. Camden LibDem candidate Jo Shaw and I, opposing the motion, expected to be defeated, but at the end of the debate our calm and precise arguments gave us a 2:1 majority.
Not that the argument is difficult. Scrapping private education would place a huge additional burden on the state – leaving it with larger class sizes, or leaving taxpayers with higher taxes – all to fund the education of wealthier kids who the rest of us aren't paying for right now. And why do it? Frankly we should be growing more independent schools, because they perform better. It's not just that they get brighter kids with more motivated parents. Or that they charge more than the state spends. The fact is that they make their budgets work harder. Pound for pound spent, private-school kids get more face time with their teachers than state school kids, as our report A Class Act showed. No wonder they perform better.
Sure, you have to be well off to send your kids to a private school: rich enough to pay taxes to support the state sector, and then pay for your private schooling. What I would like to do instead is make private schooling affordable for everyone – as they do in Sweden, or in Denmark. Sweden introduced a voucher system in the mid-1990s. It means that if parents take their children from a municipal school and move them to an independent school, that school gets the same money from the government that it would have spent on their state education. No fees, no top-ups, not even extra charges for sports kit are allowed. So all at once, the whole population of Sweden can exercise a choice. And around 1000 new independent schools have sprung up, bringing in new ideas and much more customer focus. Even the municipal schools have had to sharpen their act in the face of this new competition.
The Tories have seen the merit of this system. I hope they will be brave enough to let voucher schools go their own way and allow customers, not civil servants, to say how they want their schools run. For instance, we don't need a massive state curriculum, administered by thousands of bureaucrats – parents know whether or not a school is doing a good job, and if it isn't, they will move and take their voucher funding to another. In fact, we wouldn't need much of Ofsted's lumbering regulation at all. Let schools run themselves, and give parents the financial power to make their own choice. That would revolutionize UK education. for the better
Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.