Here’s the thing. I like the simplicity of school vouchers, they appeal to my sense that policy is at its best when it is simple. Events over recent weeks have got me thinking about how we sort out the mess that is school admissions, and they seem to have a lot going for them.
However, that isn’t to say that I don’t have concerns about the system, and I’m not sold yet. Worse, the attitude of most school voucher supporters have is that anyone who doesn’t already support them is either an idiot, an unreconstructed socialist or most likely both. At the risk of exposing my inner-moron, here are my concerns. Can people convince me?
Sweden is always being cited as a socially-progressive country which has made a success out of vouchers. There are two problems with this model however. For comparisons with Sweden to work, any UK voucher system would have to give parents the same purchasing power as Swedish parents. How much is the Swedish voucher in UK money, and how does it compare with the existing spending on each child in the UK? How much extra would the UK have to spend in order to have a similar system? This is particularly significant in rural areas as the size of the voucher would be directly related to the minimum viable size of a school. Set it too low, and all talk of competition and choice will be irrelevant.
Secondly, Sweden would appear to be an overwhelmingly white, Christian country. I’ve been there, and while walking through the streets isn’t anything like as strange an experience as Finland (where seemingly everyone is white), it doesn’t appear to be a country with the same multi-cultural experience that we have. How then would a voucher system work in a country where we already already have mass voluntary segregation in our inner-city schools? Wouldn’t the voucher system simply make this worse? Would you accept some kind of quota system to moderate this? Or is segregation a price worth paying?
Related to that point is how religious schools will be helped by the voucher system. We already have Vardy Schools out there teaching science in permanent ‘quotation marks’ and trying to slip in creationism wherever they can, and there are plenty of religions scrabbling to get their hands on public money. Supporters of the voucher system appear to accept that it will open the floodgates for this sort of thing. This happens in Sweden, but the secular consensus seems to have taken hold much more strongly there than here (due again in part to it being less multicultural). What is the argument for leaving children so much at the mercy of their parent’s belief system? What are the benefits, and how do they outweigh the problems?
As I said above, I want to believe. In 2005, I blogged about how I feared that a truly free market on education might lead to gigantism, but I’m not so convinced now as I can see why people would be distrustful of McSchools (like the scary one being build in Peterborough). But I remain concerned about how such a system would work in the UK in practice. Either way, we should be debating this rather more than the staid one about grammar schools, and we certainly need a better answer to academies, particularly now that Cameron has decided that his response should be little more than “me too!” Seriously though: convince me.