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Why vouchers will not help

I would like to suggest that Jonathan’s “Missing the point over grammar schools” below, itself misses the point. I am as in favour of grammar schools as anyone. But I do not think Cameron’s decision is any more than another piece of political pragmatism (read my comment on Jonathan’s piece for the rationale.)

I agree the new Tory policy does nothing significant for education. But I suspect Jonathan’s policy prescription – compromise vis-a-vis properly voluntary schooling it may be, is doomed. Introducing vouchers now would be worthless and the Tories are sensible, therefore, not to tie themselves to that. Not least they would risk discrediting vouchers: vouchers could be a move in the right direction, but not yet.

This is why. Here is a sensible lefty, Jenni Russell, reporting in the Guardian’s bloggish Comment is Free:

[A] father with an 18 year-old daughter at one of London’s famous public schools is shocked by her fear of anything beyond her narrow syllabus. She pleads with him not to tell her anything he knows about history or classics or literature, because she understands by now that knowing anything beyond the points on the examiners’ mark schemes will jeopardise her chances of getting top grades. She has learned that education is not about discovery, but the dutiful repetition of precisely what you have been told.

However good the school, however motivated the pupil, there is no choice to be had. There is a chemin-de-fer, directions predetermined, signals to be passed at the prescribed speed. No entry to university at 16, Mr Brown. No ignoring unutterably tedious and repetitious schoolwork and passing the exams at the end on the basis of your own reading. Step off the lockstep elevator once, and you are out for ever. (Mr Fry, the University regrets that we require a clean Criminal Records Bureau certificate.)

All Britain’s education is under the supervision of a suffocating bureaucracy, that serves itself and its conception of proper development. There is small choice in rotten apples; the sadly pocked sharecrop goes to uniform damp barrells.

Who is to blame? The conservative defenders of both grammar schools and ‘family values’, that is who; and the utilitarian industrialists who now complain workers can’t read or count. It was they who sought to save the population from indoctrination by radical Local Education Authorities, so delivered the entire population into the hands of pseudo-progressive educationalists by creating the National Curriculum; they who worried that universities could not be trusted to set sufficiently ‘practical’ exams, and did the same with syllabuses.

My modest proposal for English education:

Scrap the National Curriculum. Do not replace it. Scrap league tables and DoE “Key stage” testing. Do not replace them. Scrap rules on school admissions and allow schools to exclude or expel pupils as they choose. Scrap the QCA. Do not replace it. Scrap the Teacher Registration Regulations. Do not replace them. Scrap the office of the Access Regulator. Do not replace him. Wait five years, continuing to run and fund schools otherwise the same, which means a mix of Local Authority, central government, voluntary aided, and private schools. Only then, when people have got used to making their own decisions again, consider vouchers.

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27 comments to Why vouchers will not help

  • What a remarkably clear and sensible analysis.
    Where can I sign up to join your universe?

  • Guy, I can’t understand your point. We have a bureaucracy and a prescriptive curriculum, yes. We need to scrap them both, sure. But I can’t see why this has to precede the introduction of vouchers. Why can’t people get used to making their own decisions again while the voucher system is in operation? What will go wrong otherwise?

  • Neil Barnes

    To be fair to Cameron, his priority at the moment has to be to clear away the decaying mess of the party’s old education policy. They must at least have something ready for the next election that is vaguely defensible.

    The pro-grammar line was always rather silly; you can’t just wind the clock back to the good old days. Even Mrs Thatcher with her huge majorities realised this. How many grammar schools did she create? In that sense this might just be the “clause 4” issue that the party modernisers have been seeking.

    I suspect that most marginal seats already have OKish comprehensive schools (standards being directly linked to the catchment area). The really bad schools are in the inner city Labour voting areas. If the Conservatives were actually likely to follow through on the promise to send 80% of the voter’s offspring to 2nd rate dumping grounds, nearly every marginal seat would fall to the LibDums. However good grammar schools are, promising to create them is probably political suicide (sadly).

    The Conservative party seems likely to adopt a policy largely of continuity. This might be dull, but it could just help them get into power with enough MPs to actually change things.

    Having a great wizbang policy in perpetual opposition helps nobody.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    But I do not think Cameron’s decision is any more than another piece of political pragmatism

    Oh dear. How silly of me, I thought that Cameron actually believed in what he said.

    You don’t really convince me that I have “missed the point” at all. I know perfectly well the arguments against grammar schools and the problems of the 11-plus; but I think the Tories are funking the serious issue of school choice, which is at the heart of what is wrong with the education system today. All else is detail.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    My previous comment was blocked for some reason, even though it was innocuous, so here’s another go: I fail to see how I “miss the point”, Guy. You say that Cameron is being “pragmatic” in delaying talk about vouchers, but I see no sign from the speeches of Cameron that he is softening up the electorate for the supposedly incredible idea that parents should be able to choose their children’s place of schooling.

    I find it odd, to be honest, that the idea of school choice has to be discussed as if one is broaching some alarming or terrifying idea. Vouchers are not a perfect option (as I said), but they are hardly difficult to grasp.

  • nic

    So… how about introduce a voucher (or even better, tax credit scheme) for schools and then allow voucher schools to opt out of the national curriculum, QCA, Ofsted etc – in fact have no regulation beyond a bare requirement to teach English among whatever else and not to teach bomb-making. Allow the system to expand according to demand and then when independent voucher schools start to perform better than state controlled schools, allow state controlled schools to opt out, improve or be shut down if they have no pupils.

  • nic

    So… how about introduce a voucher (or even better, tax credit scheme) for schools and then allow voucher schools to opt out of the national curriculum, QCA, Ofsted etc – in fact have no regulation beyond a bare requirement to teach English among whatever else and not to teach bomb-making. Allow the system to expand according to demand and then when independent voucher schools start to perform better than state controlled schools, allow state controlled schools to opt out, improve or be shut down if they have no pupils.

  • samson

    I agree with all that and would add –

    “scrap the ludicrously narrow focus of traditional English education”

    No point being decent at Calculus if you can hardly spell your own name.

    Make them sit 5 A-levels, or take the Bac.

  • Paul Marks

    I think I understand the point that Guy is making (which is odd as we often misunderstand each other).

    Vouchers or tax deductions are undercut as long as government controls the examination system.

    That the government should control examinations was one of the many bad ideas of John Stuart Mill, and the results are as Guy suggests.

    In the name of “diverstity” and “free enquiry for the child” we have a system that punishes a child who tries to understand a subject (rather that just says what the system lays down that they should say).

    “Course work” is, of course, as disgrace – with so called “research” having to lead to predetemined conclusions and the work often not really being done by the child anyway. But the examinations are also becomming a joke.

    Often they are marked by students – and why not, after all certain “key words” (and so on) are what is being looked for even in essays (there is even talk of having in examinations marked by computer).

    I hope no one thinks that I am a soft touch who does not care if a child gets the facts wrong.

    Not at all, if someone says that William landed in 1065 (not 1066) then they are wrong and should lose a mark.

    However, if someone says it was a good thing that the Normans won or that it would have been a good thing if the English had one – it is how they define a “good thing” and how strong their argument is what matters (not reaching a predetermined conclusion).

    It is the same with all periods of history. For example, someone (who has studied American history of the relevant period) should know that F.D.R. was first elected President in 1932 and died in 1945 and should know the basic facts of his administration (National Industrial Recovery Act and so on), but whether F.D.R. “helped defeat the depression” or not is a matter of argument – it should not just be assumed in a potted reply.

    Ditto every other historical question.

    Nor does all this just apply to history – it applies to all the humanities and “social sciences” (I do not know enough about the natural sciences to make any useful comment). For example (in politics, philosophy or economics) I am not a Marxist – but if a student made a strong argument for Marxism and got the basic facts right, I would give them good marks.

    “You miss the point – modern education is about learning useful skills, not studying and thinking about matters and then presenting arguments”.

    Well then these “useful skills” amount to one thing – being a brown nose, like Mr Cameron’s education side kick.

  • Apparently home schooling isn’t an option?

    I urge my acquaintances (on this side of the pond) to keep their kids out of the government children’s prison system (government schools) at all costs. My slogan is “Government Schools Are Child Abuse.”

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry for not mentioning it. Of course home schooling is an option – although government regulations are making it more difficult.

  • guy herbert


    My previous comment was blocked for some reason, even though it was innocuous, so here’s another go: I fail to see how I “miss the point”, Guy. You say that Cameron is being “pragmatic” in delaying talk about vouchers, but I see no sign from the speeches of Cameron that he is softening up the electorate for the supposedly incredible idea that parents should be able to choose their children’s place of schooling.

    I’m sorry what I wrote was unclear. I wasn’t suggesting you’d missed the point about Cameron. I was agreeing with you on the “new” Tory education policy, I think, that it is expediency. Where I was suggesting you were wrong was to suggest that choice of school solves it. It doesn’t if there is no choice of lessons, no choice of discipline, nothing to choose between schools.

    Bishop Hill & Jonathan,

    Vouchers may not be hard to grasp for you. But they would be very hard for others. Plus a huge political problem. Bigger than the fabulously difficult tasks on my little list. It would be much harder for the educationalist establishment to resist a technical coup. Scrapping bureaucratic controls on schools would win support in from teachers over the heads of their unions. Giving more power to parents first, or simultaneously, would rally resistence from the profession and the notional beneficiaries.

    Many people fear choice and resent others having it. It is a form of risk aversion. (Selection is widely feared because many people would rather everyone worse off than risk losing out relatively themselves.) In order for them to accept choice, means getting them to see it as a means of reducing their risks. Even to bring them to understand it is possible in education, means preparing them.

    Vouchers are an incoherent policy while there’s insufficient variety in the system and unmanageable without choice for schools too (a proper market needs both sides to be able to choose). Variety in the system is both necessary for vouchers to be meaningful and necessary for the political implementation, which requires the people to be put in a position of being willing to trust choice, which demands it to be made very obvious to them – with time to absorb the fact – that they stand to benefit from making a choice.

  • guy herbert

    Col. Hogan,

    Apparently home schooling isn’t an option?

    As we’ve covered here before, UK home schooling is increasingly expected to follow the curriculum and methods of the state system, just as private schools (of which one could regard home schooling as a special case) are. This is subtly enforced by examinations with a heavy “coursework” component, as well as by direct inspection.

    Summerhill is well enough funded and supported to have fought off the attentions of OFSTED.

    Other eccentric schools have not been so lucky.

    Most parents aren’t going to be quite as resistent to pressure, especially since they live under the constant threat of their children being taken into local authority care, if they put a foot wrong.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Vouchers may not be hard to grasp for you. But they would be very hard for others.

    Is that really the case? I’d be glad to know if any polling research has been done on the idea among ordinary members of the public (that does not include some sort of dodgy sample of political junkies like me).

    Shopping around for a school with a voucher is not rocket science, so it should not be too difficult even for the denser Briton to grasp. If we are really saying that this is beyond the average guy, then we might as well give up now and spend more time working on our golf swings or whatever.

  • guy herbert

    When I say than many people would find vouchers hard to understand, I mean that without preparation they would find it very hard to comprehend the benefits and are likely in many cases to see vouchers replacing ‘free’ schooling as a swindle. It is a matter of socio-political context – or perhaps metacontext.

    Most people cannot understand why the smoking ban is wrong. I have passed the point of despair for the future of freedom.

  • Freeman

    guy herbert:

    Sorry, but I am begining to think you have passed the point of a coherent argument on this topic. Vouchers are a step towards more freedom. Some may not be able at first to take the most advantage from them. They will soon learn: even disadvantaged moms want their kids to have the best “trainers”.

    And it does not take a large perceived difference between schools for parents to notice, whether it’s over discipline or exam results. Parents with vouchers are like Darwin’s natural selection agents: it only requires a minute performance improvement for natural selection to work.

  • Midwesterner

    FYI: http://www.schoolchoicewi.org/

    We have a comparatively long history with this and it is to my belief, most common in the (very urban) city of Milwaukee. I actually know very little about it except that the most outspoken defenders of it (as reported in Madison) are inner city blacks.

  • guy herbert


    Pragmatic policy proposals are unfortunately required to deal with the incoherence of the actual cultural conditions in which they will be applied. Logical coherence of the policy itself is not enough. If it were, we would already live in a predominantly rationalist world.

    The classic British example of the cultural constraint of understanding is the NHS. British people are frequently delighted with the experience of medical treatment in France or Germany. They don’t have any difficulty distinguishing better service when they get it. But the idea that it might be connected with hospitals, doctors, and patients managing the relationships between them for themselves, rather than better state management does not often occur. The conclusion usually drawn is that our health service could be better if only we had more of it. The hand of choice is not just invisible, it is incomprehensible.

    Likewise school vouchers. Money is a facilitator of trade not a motivator. Introducing school vouchers in Britain 2007 (even if not subverted by the DfES) is like setting up a futures exchange for subsistence farmers. It might help them in theory, but your theory depends on a freedom of action and conceptual space, that is not available to the putative participants in the market.

    My approach: give choice by stealth and increase variety in the informal marketplace, is designed to start where we are. The problem I don’t have a solution to is that there’s too little motive, and perhaps too little capacity, for the politically powerful to destroy quangos and departmental powers.

  • Freeman

    guy herbert:

    I agree that more pragmatism is necessary, coupled with minimal state intervention. However, no process is more pragmatic than Darwinian evolution, which in everyday experience is shown to operate well in the economic sphere: customers vote with their wallet.

    As for starting a voucher scheme, it does not have to include all schools and all pupils on day one, as has been demonstrated by the successful Milwaukee scheme.

  • Paul from Florida

    Two words. Home school.

  • Andrew Duffin

    iirc, the National Curriculum was Mrs. Thatcher’s (pbuh) attempt to ensure that state schools at least taught the three R’s instead of focussing on soft touchy-feely stuff. Her mistake was turning the idea over to the educational establishment for implementation, with the results that we see all around us.

    If you’re going to have state schools (not a position I support btw) then a standardised curriculum is not a bad thing on principle. It’s just that the one we have now was put into place by the usual suspects.

  • I am between here, I think.

    Vouchers are good but should be part of the de-coupling of schools from LEA control. I think inspections are a good thing as they are the State’s role of “weights and measures” – i.e. is the school doing what it advertises. Exams are another part of the mix, but pluralism of exam boards and standards are good as it keeps them on their toes, but the State can have a role in ensuring what an A at “O level” should mean, for example, to avoid the need for people to check what board and marking entity it came from, unless the type of exam and board is privately regulated.

    That said, vouchers are pointless unless you enable schools to set entrance criteria.

    The issue of coursework should not be used as an excuse to banish national standards. That is like saying bad law is a reason to dispense with any law. That said, coursework in almost all subjects except Art is a pretty daft idea if you ask me. If they just enabled “old fashioned” O-levels to be taught and gained, I suspect they would hold more currency than the GCSEs and as such would be the preference.

    Vouchers are a way to enable the school to recover costs centrally without petty hitlers at LEA level being dog-in-a-manger about it or even handing over funds for dodgy schools teaching Eco-fascism or some other religious nutbaggery.

  • Paul Marks

    The point about the I.B. above is a good one – there are alternative examinations (that are not controlled by the British government and its various agencies) out there.

    However, I still agree with Guy that getting rid of the examination boards is vital.

    But on Guy’s point about vouchers only working if there are a variety of schools – no.

    Vouchers (or tax allowances) would create a varety of schools.

    Take the example of St Peter’s Independent School in Northampton (where I taught for two years). It is the least expensive school in the county – however it is competing against schools that charge nothing at all, so it struggles.

    If parents had the money and could choose where to spend it there would be a lot more schools like st Peter’s

    As for people not understand that a smoking ban is a violation of freedom:

    I have never met a person who did not understand that. But, of course, I was a security guard for most of life and the people I knew were mostly other guards or cleaner or factory workers (and so on).

    Rich people may be different.

    Indeed when I listen to the B.B.C. (and other such) there main argument is that a smoking ban will “save lives”.

    Most of the people I knew would simply say two things.

    “What has saving lives got to do with freedom?”


    “What is so great about living anyway?”

    Class may no longer be as important as it once was, but love of life does seem to be a middle class thing.

  • fjfjfj

    What evidence is there that it is getting harder to home educate?

    I am strongly under the impression that it is getting easier.

  • Paul Marks


    I am not good at providing sources – I hear something, check to see if it is true and then forget about sources (a habit I aquired in my youth – when I was told to do various political things, but also told to then forget who had told me to do them or, indeed, what exactly I had done).

    However, all over Europe (well at least the E.U. – but this pressure is not just an E.U. affair) there is a move that certain “values” must be taught (whether a child is home educated or not). The United Kingdom is not immune from such things.

    In short – if you do not educate your children in doctrines that the powers-that-be approve of you will find soon that you are not allowed to educate them.

  • What a surprise. The BBC has “been handed” a report document showing a school being rude about pupils.

    The School? In Kent. Selective foundantion school taking Sec Modern and Grammar.

    If anyone is unfamiliar with the pungent aroma of Ratus Ratus, fill yer nostrils.

  • guy herbert


    I don’t want to get rid of examination boards, but the examination quangos. Without officials telling them what sort of exams to set, then the boards will have to go back to competing for schools’ business by providing a quality product. Several boards are still selling O-levels to places such as the Caribbean and Singapore, 20 years after DfES diktat drove them out of England and Wales.