Thursday, November 01, 2007

Education and the leadership election

I was sorry to see Chris Huhne's manifesto going out of its way to rule out any thought of introducing school vouchers. It says:

But we should not fool ourselves that either insurance or vouchers will improve the quality or the fairness of public services. They will certainly do nothing, unlike local democratic control, for community responsibility and cohesion.

Particular proposals for public services stand or fall on their details: look, for example, at all the problems that flowed from the botched privatisation of British Rail. The school voucher scheme in Arizona left three quarters of public money going to children who were already going through private schools.

That may have been the experience in Arizona. But impeccably lefty Sweden also operates a voucher system which, according to Anthony Giddens at least, works well:
The Stockholm-based Research Institute of Industrial Economics has found that the competition has led to improved standards in state schools and that vouchers have not led to greater advantages for the more affluent: on the contrary, poor Swedes choose independent schools in greater numbers than rich Swedes.

Besides, as Andy Mayer says in a comment on Linda Jack's blog:

While I wouldn't expect the Liberal Democrats to come out in favour of compulsory nationwide vouchers for all schools, they don't need to. This is surely precisely the sort of issue that should be decided locally and decentralised. If that happens we would then see very clearly whether empowered LEAs or empowered parents were better at delivering school improvements and innovation across the board and for the most vulnerable.
Nick Clegg's pet education scheme is the 'pupil premium'. Here funding follows the pupil and pupils from less advantaged backgrounds are funded more generously. The ideas is that this would encourage schools to accept more children from such backgrounds - thought I am not sure exactly how this sits with the current Lib Dem wish for an anonymous procedure with the local education authority having the dominant role.

I have myself written in support of this scheme in the past, without knowing very much about it. But I do wonder at the politics of this.

The urban seats that Liberal Democrats represent tend to include affluent suburbs. Nick Clegg's own seat of Sheffield Hallam is a good example of this. Indeed it used to be rock solid Tory. It is largely made up of pleasant, villagey suburbs and borders the Peak District. It is rather like Richmond upon Thames with hill walking.

One of the reasons that people move to such areas is that they have good schools. (And, of course, one of the reasons they have good schools is that ambitious parents move to them.)
If I understand Nick's scheme correctly, it will mean that affluent Hallam parents will find it harder to get their children into the local schools because those schools will be keen to accept better-funded pupils from other parts of Sheffield. I do wonder how this would go down with Nick's voters in Hallam.

My own view is that the bottom line of the education scheme is that we desperately need more good schools. The Lib Dem answer to achieving this is to fund education well (though I believe we are no longer saying that we would spend more on schools than Labour currently does) and to give local education authorities more autonomy.

I am sure that would help, but I doubt it is the whole answer. I should like to see more small schools being opened and a greater diversity of providers. Which brings me back to something like the Swedish voucher system.

Unfortunately, in another comment on the same thread on Linda Jack's blog, one of Nick Clegg's chief cheerleaders, Jeremy Hargreaves, has hotly denied that his man would support any such scheme.

So it seems that both leadership candidates are going to disappoint me.


Anonymous said...

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the 'pupil premium', it is not an idea unique to Nick Clegg. It was part of the policy Freedom from Poverty, Opportunity for All (Poverty and Inequality Policy Paper) adopted at Brighton.


dreamingspire said...

You do not get quality without excellent staff excellently managed. Too much of the public sector has forgotten that, and also does not realise that a single management failure is far more damaging than a single problem person at the coal face. Chris, in an otherwise very good manifesto, has failed to address that problem with quality of management, and Nick just seems to be up there in the clouds.

Tristan said...

I share your concerns.

And echo them on the health service too.

Where has the radical liberal instinct of letting people choose their own solution gone?
In trying to ensure all can get access to services we appear to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, to the detriment of the poorest.

Chris and Nick both seem to have fallen foul of the managerialism which pervades politics. Individuals cannot be held responsible for themselves it seems, politicians and state employees must look after you.

Anonymous said...


Indeed the pupil premium isn't a new Clegg idea from this leadership election, but before it appearing in a party document it was a CentreForum proposal and before that (in 2001) it was something that Nick wrote an article about.

On the broader issue, I agree with Jonathan (as usual) on his comments on vouchers, but would say that it looks to me like Nick feels to be open to whatever works, whereas Chris seems to be running with the idea that individual choice can never work... Which concerns me.