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Liberty Belle: Education Vouchers In Britain

Liberty Belle In Cambridge (2)
Education vouchers in Britain? It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
By Deborah Coddington M.P

While New Zealanders tend to run screaming from the room when the ‘v’ word is mentioned, hardly a day goes by over here without the newspapers running a story about someone pleading for a voucher system, where the funding follows the child.

Even Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools – once a much-feared official – has done a complete U-turn on central funding and control of education. Early in April, Woodhead addressed a conference organised by Reform, a think tank which promotes market liberalism ( Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson were keynote speakers at the conference). He called for the abolition of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the 150 local education authorities and most of the Education Department.

As Libby Purves wrote in ‘The Times’: “I checked the date – it was April 7, not April 1.”

Woodhead said, and he wasn’t joking: “For 30 years I believed that a national curriculum, national testing and a strong independent inspection service would lead to higher standards of education for the most disadvantaged children. Over the years I came to understand that these were not the answers.”

Now Woodhead is calling for the £17 billion that the UK annually “wastes on bureaucracy and initiatives” to instead “follow the individual pupil and be paid to independently run schools. Each would be able to recruit pupils freely, train its own teachers, set its own curriculum and devise its own tests. If parents wanted their children’s school inspecting, they could call an independent body. Government could, as the children say, just butt out.”

Great stuff. And there’s more.

Woodhead – who once used the Courts to try and close down Summerhill, the private ‘free-school’ - told the conference that schools should be free, diverse, suited to their clientele and able to pioneer new kinds of teaching. At present, he said, state education fails because it is centrally controlled, parents are denied choice and responsibility, and teachers are treated as “production-line workers – told what to teach, how and when”.

Chris Woodhead is no right-wing ideologue, just someone who knows what doesn’t work in education and has the guts to say what needs to be done to effect change. In fact, he paraphrased Mao with his final message: he asked Britain to “trust teachers, trust parents, kick bureaucrats down the stairs and allow a thousand flowers to bloom.”

Then yesterday, writing in “The Times”, the headmaster of Brighton College, Anthony Seldon said: “Government needs to look seriously at vouchers, which in the 70s was a favoured policy of the right. If government does indeed introduce direct funding to schools, bypassing local education authorities, it will make a voucher scheme far more viable. Parents themselves would be given a voucher to the sum of a place in a state school and they could present that voucher at the school of their choice. All schools will need to become responsive to parental and pupil wishes. Poor schools will flounder and good schools will take off, while fresh schools will start up.”

If I were a teacher I’d be terribly excited about this scheme. Imagine getting together with a group of likeminded teachers and planning an independent school where you could make classes as big or small as you liked? Where you could diversify, be creative, take young people and let them soar?

I know, I know, you’re not convinced. You’re thinking, what about special needs children? Poor children? Children whose parents don’t care if they go to school or not?

That’s why I’m here – to answer those questions and put those fears to rest. In the weeks to come I’ll be seeing people like Professor James Tooley, from Newcastle University, who’s written several books on this topic and articles for ‘The Spectator’ on private schools for poor children in India and Africa. I’ll also be travelling to The Netherlands, where 70 per cent of schools are administered and governed by private school boards, and government and private schools are state-funded on an equal footing. I’ll talk to Dutch parents and children because, as we have a habit of saying in journalism, you should talk to the giraffes, not just the giraffe-keepers.

In just eight weeks time I’ll be back in New Zealand, campaigning loudly for parental choice in schools. It might sound radical now, but everyone thought I was nuts seven years ago when I called for a national register of sex offenders.

Yours in liberty,
Deborah Coddington


- Deborah Coddington a list MP for the New Zealand ACT party is presently engaged in the Qantas Journalism fellowship at Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K.

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