School vouchers: convince me

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.


  1. I wonder if it’s worth looking at Denmark. There’s been discussions lately about localism on a couple of LVT mailing lists I participate on that have mentioned the “Folk Schule” (?) system. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with schools of fifty or a hundred pupils on average. Very local, cooperative neighbourhood schools that parents get the right to set up and the money that would otherwise go to whatever gymnasium they would send their kids to. Or something like that. If not as a direct model for Britain, then as proof that significantly smaller school units can be economically viable.

  2. Eh? Since when has Sweden been overwhelmingly Christian? I thought it was largely atheistic, which I would say is the fundamental reason a secular consensus prevails. But when are the Lib Dems going to really emphasise their secular credentials to the electorate? I would love to see a long term commitment to abolish faith-based education, though I know it can’t be accomplished overnight.

  3. Your question about the value of the voucher in Sweden seems to be assuming that there will be extra costs involved in a voucher-based system. Can this be right? Beyond the costs of distributing the voucher itself, which would presumably not be large, I can’t think of anything. And if the schools are private sector owned then we can expect to see lots of inefficiency and overmanning cut out – that’s the experience of every other privatisation so far. Unfortunately what the Tories are proposing seems to be a retention of state ownership, which means we will probably end up with PFI writ large.

    On religious schools, I think you’re making an unwarranted assumption too. Is there really excess demand for religious education. Given that only 10% (IIRC) goes to church I don’t think this is right. There is excess demand for places at religious schools, but this is only because their product is seen as superior to the bog standard comp. Sort out the comps and your flood never happens.

    As a liberal, presumably you are happier with parents choosing their children’s education than the state doing it for them?

  4. I think James’ question about the value of the voucher – in relation to the viability of small schools – is very important.

    The main reason so many small village schools have closed in recent decades is because the funding system, where most money follows the child – means small schools don’t have the resources to cover their relatively high fixed costs.

    In Sweden many of the new schools that have been set up are small schools – viable because the voucher is worth enough.

    I’m not convinced by BH’s suggestion that privately run schools will reduce staffing levels. Existing private schools have far higher staffing levels than state schools – and the vast majority of state schools budgets goes on teaching staff.

  5. “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.”

    Well, you said it, James ;o)

    Seriously, though, I’ll see if I can find out the value of a Swedish voucher, because your first point is correct.

    Your second is not, however. Having lived in Sweden for two years, I can assure you that it is a very multi-ethnic country. It has a record on asylum that puts the world to shame, and a thriving immigrant population.

    It is Christian, though – sorry, Laurence. I was astounded by how many of my Swedish friends not only practiced their religion but actually sang in choirs and the like. They have the same sense of faith, community and certainty that the British had fifty years ago.

    As regards segregation, the evidence is that it leads to greater integration. Immigrants often live in ethnically-homogenous communities, so local schools become ethnically homogenous too. Vouchers enable children to escape the catchment area of their local school and so lead to more ethnic mixing. I’ve posted about this here (including citations).

    My position on faith schools is one I consider to be impeccably liberal (others may demur): I have more faith in parents as guardians of their children’s wellbeing than I do in the state. The advantage of choice is it leads to diversity, ensuring that no error is compounded by being promoted universally. Competition will eventually destroy mistaken beliefs (as it did with the Olympian gods and with socialism – though the teaching of the latter still runs deep in our state-monopoly education system). I think it highly illiberal to insist that all children be subject to a national curriculum drawn up by bureaucrats and politicians in Whitehall, no matter how “expert” their advisors.

    That being said, even if one opposes faith schools, the overall benefits of a voucher system will outweigh the cost in allowing a few faith schools. You could always restrict the vouchers to establishments that meet certain criteria, of course. But I think that that undermines one of the main benefits of school choice: the diversity. Ultimately, as a liberal fundamentalist, I believe that you can’t have your cake and eat it: if you want to dictate what children may be taught, then you can’t have genuine choice. But a voucher system would still give parents the chance to choose which school best benefited their child.

    As for what you derisorily call McSchools, I find it interesting that you don’t use other private sector giants as your example, such as M&S, Toyota, Microsoft or Nokia. Surely the weight of evidence is that many giants are very good at what they do, and those that don’t go by the wayside. McDonalds provide hungry British people with a speedy indulgence.

    Anyway, nasty-mean-greedy capitalists need not be the only providers. Education would be offered by companies, churches, charities, “social enterprises”, businesses-on-behalf-of-their-workers, Trades Unions, community groups, individual entrepreneurs, the Scout Movement, Manchester United… The beauty of the market is its diversity.

    I could go on.

    (Some might say I do).

  6. And if the schools are private sector owned then we can expect to see lots of inefficiency and overmanning cut out – that’s the experience of every other privatisation so far.

    You forgot the pony. How many schools do you know that have a surplus of teachers? Also, the biggy here is the implicit assumption that a) “parents” in the mass have a choice between significant numbers of schools, b) transaction costs are insignificant, c) successful schools can expand costlessly, d) choice is evenly distributed. If you live in Holme Wood, having the choice between three shit schools is unlikely to help very much.

  7. Reading the debate here with interested. I’m intrigued that the pro-voucher people seem to be assuming I have some kind of sinister agenda by raising the issue.

    Bishop, I’m not assuming necessarily that there are in-built costs of running the voucher system (there undoubtedly will be some bureaucracy, but I’m open to the argument that it will save paperwork in other areas as well). My point was more prosaic: the current system allows local authorities to subsidise schools in rural areas which are deemed socially necessary. Removing this subsidy would mean that schools will stand or fall on the basis of how large the voucher is. I’m surprised that pointing out this simple economic reality is seen as an attack of the system.

    Thanks, Tom, for pointing me to some actual evidence rather than simply making bald assertions. I’ll have a look at them later. My main issue is whether parents know what they want. For the past 20 years, politicians have been spoon-feeding them league tables, but this doesn’t appear to have improved education notably. The result has been exam sausage factories. You’re right that the state doesn’t know best, but in this case the state has been lead by public opinion. You are also correct however that a market will expand choice, but there are limits. The free market in shoes doesn’t allow me to buy a pair of size 13 trainers off the shelf in any high street shop (I can’t even order them from a lot of them these days), so I struggle to believe that it will offer people any flavour of education they want for their kids, especially if they live in a sparsely populated rural area.

    As for the ethnic diversity of Sweden, I remain unconvinced that it is comparable to what we have in the UK. I’m aware that they have a good record on asylum and immigration, but that isn’t the same thing as having the sort of sizeable economic immigrant population that we have in the UK, now into its third generation and more. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I need facts.

    The CIA World Factbook sums up the Swedish population thus: Swedes with Finnish and Sami minorities; foreign-born or first-generation immigrants: Finns, Yugoslavs, Danes, Norwegians, Greeks, Turks. UK: white (of which English 83.6%, Scottish 8.6%, Welsh 4.9%, Northern Irish 2.9%) 92.1%, black 2%, Indian 1.8%, Pakistani 1.3%, mixed 1.2%, other 1.6% (2001 census). Doesn’t seem very comparable to me.

  8. Tom,

    The one time I went to Sweden, I stayed with some Seventh Day Adventists who literally believed in Noah’s flood. But I tried not to extrapolate to the whole nation. It sounds like your friends might have been Christian too. And I fear that you may be being a touch complacent about the problems posed by religion. The Olympian gods have not gone away; they’ve just changed their names. Overthrowing socialism was a doddle by comparison.

    The problem with unalloyed choice in education, or indeed any other arena, is that choice in one domain drives out choice in another. Resources are finite, so we can’t have everything. Say, in a given area, we have a Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim school. Think what we could have in their place. Perhaps schools with special strengths in music, art, sport, technology. I’m not talking about City Academies here; just natural strengths and specialisations which our schools could develop if only we did not insist upon organising our children’s education in the 21st century around competing ancient mythologies.

    I’m afraid that when it comes to education, I’d rather not have to trust the state or parents. After all, whose education are we talking about? The child’s. And therein lies the problem. The principle of liberty cannot really apply to education. If it did, many children might choose not to attend school at all.

  9. Laurence,

    While I agree that extrapolation is dangerous, two years in a country gives me a better picture than one visit. I met and worked with a lot of Swedes and they were generally far more religious than the Brits I have known.

    As regards Church and State, it is still necessarily to actively opt out of having some of your income taxes paid to the Church of Sweden.

    Your suggestion that one choice drives out another is also flawed. Why can a school not be both Muslim and good in music; Jewish and a centre for scientific excellence. The point with choice is that one can decide whether a Hindu upbringing is more imporatnat than the quality of a school’s Maths teachers or its sporting facilities. That is a decision best made by parents, and their choice is best facilitiated by variety.

    The suggestion that the only four schools you can reasonably send your children to are “Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim” seems rather far fetched. So is the implication that religious schools teach a lot of religion. An hour and a half of RE out of a thirty hour curriculum is hardly indocrination.

    You make a good point about the needs and desires of children, though. Liberty in relation to children is different from its relationship to adults. However, it is worth remembering that liberty is not anarchy; one cannot have liberty without rules. More rules are required for children because they are not responsible for thier own actions – even JS Mill was satisfied with that point. So while you might “rather not have to trust the state or parents”, that is the choice you are left with. I am clear which side I come down on. What about you?

  10. James,

    It depends where you are, but there were plenty of Arabs, African and orientals in Stockholm, and the voucher system is working perfectly well there.

    How integrated they are in Swedish society is hard to judge, but I certainly did not get the impression that they were more segregated than in the UK.

    As for your size 13 shoes (a problem with which I sympathise), that is true but hardly fair criticism. If I tens of thousands of parents distributed evenly across the UK all wanted a school that taught three hours of chess week, we would probably struggle to find a supplier to meet our demand. There will always be people whose extreme demands (big shoes, chess tuition) will not met locally; perhaps like the parents of chess prodigies, we have to accept that we’ll need to travel to find suppliers. The point is that overall, more people would have more of their demand met more satisfactorily than under the current system whereby one size of education (though thankfully not shoe!) fits all.

    I’ve not been able to find out the value of the Swedish voucher. I did not think it would be so hard!

  11. Similarly, I’m struggling to find out how many people in the UK have size 13 feet, but I suspect it is rather more than the proportion of parents who consider chess tuition to be their main reason for choosing a school.

    I suspect that we are rather more common than you might think and that my failure to find a shoe that fits in an inner city high street is rather more comparable to the limited choice available to parents wanting a school with a secular ethos living in a rural area.

    The advantage I have as a shoe buyer is that shoes are relatively scalable. My alternative to the high street is the internet (I don’t get to browse or take advantage of special offers and have to pay a delivery surcharge, but it’s do-able). The choice for schools will always be more limited because you can’t simply rustle one up as demand dictates. This is why the value of the voucher is so crucial: the bigger it is, the smaller a school can be and operate in such an environment.

  12. This is all really fascinating to listen to, a perfect example of the neo vs new liberals arguement that goes on with in the party.
    As somebody who does actually go to school I find it rather strange how some here are talking as if education was a perfectly competitive, perfectly contestable market. It isn’t. the truth is that if we did privatise education as some are suggesting here or allow a greater private role it would simply mean education being handed over to corporations (they are the only ones with enough capital) and although I do agree that a centralized state system can never truly provide quality education if everything is micromanaged from the centre I dislike the idea of local authorities and even central government not being able to influence how schools are run and it being left upto unnaccountable corporate bodies.
    There is also the point being raised about faith education. The question is not about giving parents a choice about how they would like their children to be raised but is often rather forcing a choice as to whether you would like your child to go to a decent selective school of a faith you don’t support where more often than not religion is injected into lessons (a good friend of mine had to be baptised) or a comprehensive school where you have no faith in it to teach your child decently. There are also plenty of alternatives such as allowing afterschool or lunchtime religious groups (what my school does) which means everyone gets the same good education while allowing them to practise their faith with other like minded people of their own free will.
    Finnally I would like to point out that we as a party have a commtiment to universal public services where everyone pays and everyone recieves. I thinks its a good principle which is practised in Finland and has succeeded in producing better outcomes. Although I like the idea of vouchers giving greater choice and possibly greater outcomes (though I’m not sure how the system works!) I think the real question we have to be asking oourselves here is whether we want to have decent eductaional services (‘yes!’ say the voters) and if so whether we’re willing to pay the high price to reduce class sizes and increase the amount of education services in this country whether through higher taxes or higher private costs (‘Oh hadn’t thought of that’ say the voters). But on a final note I do think it needs to be government and not the private sector that provides universal education, I doubt even Adam Smith would have said anything different. After all I am a capitalist but that doesn’t mean we need to treat everything in our lives like a market.

  13. Tom,

    Your suggestion that one choice drives out another is also flawed. Why can a school not be both Muslim and good in music?

    We can indeed have a Muslim music school. As well as a Catholic technology school, a Jewish art school, an Anglican sports school, a Catholic art school, a Jewish music school, an Anglican technology school, a Muslim sports school, a Jewish technology school, an Anglican art school, a Muslim technology school, a Catholic sports school, an Anglican music school, a Jewish sports school, a Muslim art school, and a Catholic music school. But there’s a problem. There are only four patches of land on which to build a school, not sixteen. Reality bites. And I haven’t even mentioned Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology; never mind witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy. Something has to give. It should be religion that we cheerfully discard on the scrapheap of bad ideas, instead of allowing it to drain our resources and restrict our choices.

    The suggestion that the only four schools you can reasonably send your children to are “Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, and Muslim” seems rather far fetched. So is the implication that religious schools teach a lot of religion. An hour and a half of RE out of a thirty hour curriculum is hardly indoctrination.

    Sure, it’s an abstract example. But what, pray, is the point of a specifically religious school if it is not to indoctrinate in some form or another? No need to worry about religion; nobody actually believes in it any more! In fact the term “faith school” is a delightful oxymoron. “Faith” is the very antithesis of the principle of free enquiry which should inform every child’s education. We should be teaching our children about evidence, reason, falsification; not sky gods, miracles, and superstition. Then there’s the inevitable and dismal consequence of our having to inhabit a world fractured by competing belief systems. Claims that faith schools actually help to promote an integrated society are, to my mind, as ridiculous as they sound.

    So while you might “rather not have to trust the state or parents”, that is the choice you are left with. I am clear which side I come down on. What about you?

    Given that particular choice, it’s no contest. I go with the state. It’s not the parent’s education we’re talking about; it’s the child’s. The state has a duty of care towards the most vulnerable members of society, and there are none more vulnerable than children. In my view, the accommodations we have made to religion in our education system amount to an abject betrayal, of which creationism in City Academies is but an extreme example. Would we tolerate our schools being divided up between the various Olympian gods? No, obviously not. Yet we remain so blasé about their 21st century equivalents, and at a terrible cost.

  14. Neil

    Re the value of the voucher, that’s a question for the democratic process to answer. There is a trade off to be made between local schools and travelling time (and all the other possible uses of ones money). Having a voucher system makes it more likely that the outcome will reflect parents’ preferences rather than those of politicians. It’s also worth pointing out that if vouchers can be topped up (or if they are only issued to those who can’t afford to buy schooling themselves) then it’s more likely still.

    As an aside, near where I live, there is a primary school with five pupils. If it closed, they would have to travel….three miles to the next nearest school. That a school like this is kept open is, on the face of it, absolute madness – not least on environmental grounds – and wouldn’t happen if parents were bearing all of the costs. I humbly submit to you that this would be a good thing.

  15. Neil and Alex

    Re potential cost savings – I was thinking more of savings of admin costs rather than teaching posts. Mainly I had in mind LEA staff, who could largely be made redundant in a privatised system. In addition all of the HMIs could go too – until quite recently HMIs only inspected private schools on their role in loco parentis for boarders. As far as educational standards were concerned it was left entirely to the market.

    There may also be savings to be made in the schools themselves, although it is quite possible that there are not. My own children’s school has approximately 40 staff of whom 8 are teachers. (Some are not paid – like the minister – while others are part timers). It seems unlikely to me that there are no savings at all possible here.

    Does anyone know if private schools use classroom assistants? If not, then why the difference?

  16. James

    I wasn’t suggesting that you were attacking the system – I wouldn’t dare for fear of evisceration 😉

    See my response to Alex above for the point about the size of the voucher. When you say “deemed socially necessary” you are, of course, pointing to the preferences of politicians rather than the preferences of consumers.

  17. Bishop: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that the level of the voucher is an issue for the democratic process to answer. It may indeed be a better system, but it will still be subject to political interference for this very reason.

    A question to the panel: should vouchers solely be set at a national level, or should local authorities be allowed to include their own ‘top ups’ (raised from their own revenue streams, of course)?

  18. Got to be local hasn’t it? It’s unlikely that education in London will cost the same as in Cornwall, and anyway we don’t believe in centralism do we?

    I think the more pertinent question is whether the voucher should cover everybody or just the poor, and if the former, whether top-ups should be permitted. (God, how I hate the idea of having to ask politicians for permission to buy education for my children!)

  19. Don’t look at Sweden. School voucher there is incomplete, and allows only a limited choice. Look at the Netherlands. There has been a school voucher system in the Netherlands since 1917, and as far as I know, it hasn’t led to a catastrophe.

    Instead, Dutch parents have a lot of choice regarding to what kind of school they put their children. They can choose a municipality-owned (openbaar) or a private (bijzonder) school. The private school can be religious, such as catholic, protestant, ecumenical, interconfessional, islamic, jewish, hindu or non-religious (neutraal or algemeen).

    Any of these schools can then also use some special pedagogical method, such as Montessori-, Dalton-, Jenaplan- or Freinetmethod.

    So if you really support freedom of choice, then you should support school vouchers.

  20. And I have a feeling you oppose the school vouchers only because the Conservatives suggested them. But lets face it, if the Lib Dems really are a liberal party, they should have done it already earlier.

    However, I don’t think that the Conservatives have quite grasped the idea of school vouchers. Otherwise Cameron wouldn’t be opposing the foundation of new grammar schools. In a school voucher system such as in the Netherlands, it would be also be possible to found new grammar school, and if enough parents would choose to put their children in those new grammar schools, they would prosper. If not, they would have to close down. But it wouldn’t be the business of politicians to tell, that they shouldn’t be founded.

  21. “And I have a feeling you oppose the school vouchers only because the Conservatives suggested them.”

    You see, this is the nub of the problem. A tremendous number of school voucher supporters are very hard of thinking. I didn’t say I was opposed to them, I asked questions about them. This is immediately assumed to equate to ‘opposition’.

    There have been some useful contributions on this thread and I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me. But simply stating that you ‘must’ support the voucher system because it offers ‘choice’ is banal in the extreme.

  22. Oops, sorry, I forgot to mention, that the Netherlands have put certain standards and reuirements for the school to get the public funding, so I suspect it wouldn’t be possible to teach creationism, at least without teaching other theories, as well.

    The Dutch authorities also constantly supervise the quality of the education, and they for instance maintain a site called “de onderwijsinspectie” where anybody can check how a certain school fulfills the quality standards. This helps the parents to choose a goods school for their children.

  23. “But simply stating that you ‘must’ support the voucher system because it offers ‘choice’ is banal in the extreme.”

    So you mean, that you oppose choice?

  24. (Slaps forehead)

    Okay, I should probably put a bit more here. I’m not questioning that vouchers expand choice, or that ‘choice’ is a good thing in principle. What I’m trying to explore here are the potential unintended consequences.

    Since you know so much about the Dutch system, I’ll ask you the same question I asked about Sweden. What is the value of the Dutch voucher, and how does it compare with how much is spent in the UK per pupil?

  25. Unfortunately it’s years since I have lived in the Netherlands, so I couldn’t find any fresh numbers, but you might be interested to read this comparison between the Dutch and American models from 2004. It says: “The Dutch spend only $6,000 per pupil annually, compared to the nearly $10,000 spent in U.S. public schools.”

    I don’t know how this compares to the UK, but I think that choice is such a good thing, that it is even worth of paying a little bit extra, in the case that it is more expensive. But at least the Dutch model seems to be somewhat cheaper than the American model.

  26. Another thought occurred to me, James. The pareto principle suggests that we should design for the majority and deal with the exceptions separately. The first question is how do we design the best system for the majority. I would argue that this is best done by giving them the money back and letting them spend it as they see fit. Those who cannot afford to buy an education for their children can be given a voucher. Areas like segregation can be dealt with if and when they prove to be an issue, perhaps by placing restrictions on a school’s intake.

  27. I’m not convinced by that as it puts all the onus on the ‘exceptions’ to make their case, despite the fact that a lot of them will tend to have a lot more on their plate anyway. What you seem to be suggesting is something like Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which put all the onus on individuals to make the case that they are poor, which creates a disincentive for people on low incomes to raise their aspirations and also leads to people in need not having access simply because they are either ignorant of how the system works or time poor. The ‘gamers’ and the wealthy do well out of the system, everyone struggling to get by does poorly.

  28. My first reaction to vouchers is the same as my usual reaction to any new set of rules: how can we game the rules to gain an advantage?

    Well, the most obvious gaming is for schools to select pupils on the basis of their cost to educate. Children who are disruptive, exceptionally bright, talented, stupid, or untalented, children with physical or mental disabilities, children who don’t speak English fluently, even just working-class children: All of these categories cost more to educate than the ideal child, who is slightly above average without being particularly exceptional. If anyone ever wonders how grammar schools are so successful it’s because that’s what most of their pupils are.

    If the voucher is varied in value depending on the child, it won’t be varied as subtly as the school is capable of varying the intake, so again there are gaming methods here.

    This will mean that some schools will be more successful than others because they can game their intake better. Parents will respond by gaming their children into those intakes – and it is middle-class parents who will game most successfully, in part because they tend to care more about education (people who benefitted from their own education are more likely to value it for their children) and in part because they have greater financial resources.

    The only way to resist this is for intakes to be completely unselective. That means either requiring schools to accept all applicants regardless of what that does to facilities and class sizes and relying on market forces to make parents select a less-overcrowded school, or an application lottery.

    It’s worth reminding people that choice in education for most parents means choosing between a good school and a bad one, not between a maths school and a language school, or a church school and a non-church school.

  29. Richard

    I think we need to look at the experience of Holland again here. Do they have the problems you foresee? I would have thought a variable voucher would be sufficient to deal with this kind of problem. After all, the schools don’t have an intimate knowledge of the children they are assessing for entrance, so the sophisticated finessing of the entrance criteria by the schools will be difficult.

    I’m not sure if your idea of making schools accept all applicants regardless of the consequences is tongue in cheek or not. I can’t see this as a serious proposal.

    It’s worth pointing out that in products and services provided by the private sector the choice tends to be between a good product and a good product with bells and whistles on. A Skoda is a cheap car, but a very good one. A Rolls Royce is a good car too, but just has a lot of toys and cachet. Ditto supermarkets. The food at Aldi is cheap but good. Waitrose is good and fancy. If only schools were the same.

    We should also remember that we are only trying to design a system that is better than the current shambles. Just because we cannot reach perfection doesn’t mean we are stuck with what we have now.

  30. Let’s think through the repercussions of school vouchers. The demand curve for private education at the moment is downwards sloping and concave; few people want to pay for education that is highly expensive; many do if it is cheap. The supply curve is (mainly) upwards sloping and pretty inelastic; accomodating more students in the current number of private schools is going to very expensive. (We’ll get to the effects of new schools in a bit).

    School vouchers, as a subsidy, will shift the demand curve to the right: there is now more demand for private education. As any economics student will be able to tell you, the effect of this on an inelastic supply curve is to raise the price of private education by nearly the cost of the voucher, and to admit only a few more pupils in.

    So obviously, a £3000 voucher will not allow your children to enter a £3000-fee school, as the cost will have risen nearer £5500.

    If you can already afford to send your child to a private school, you’re in for a windfall in terms of the quality of education; a small school of 400 pupils will now get an extra £1,000,000 courtesy of the government.

    Of course, this money has been diverted from the fund (or potential fund) for state schools. About 5% of pupils are currently privately educated, so that means the money available for state schools has decreased by about £150 (assuming £3000 vouchers). In a state school of 1000 pupils, that equates to about five teacher’s salaries and the entire photocopy budget. You can forget new books.

    But of course, you now have a choice where to send your child. And you’ll want to send your child to the best school in the area. Everyone will. Assuming they can afford the transport costs – although luckily transport costs are zero in a free market, of course. If you’re lucky, maybe the school will sack a few more teachers so they can afford to bus kids across the city.

    But how is the best school going to choose whose vouchers to accept? Either by:

    (a) Setting an exam – although this hardly raises the standard of education in all schools; it just creams off the brightest pupils in the city.

    (b) By catchment area – which doesn’t increase choice.

    (c) By lottery – which doesn’t increase choice.

    (d) Or by raising a financial hurdle – if you can pay a thousand pounds or so on top of the voucher, you can get your child in. Of course, this expansion in supply of private education will shift the supply curve, and the overall price of private education will fall a bit from its raised level, and – as free-marketeers know, will make those schools competitive and the quality of education within them will rise.

    Of course, if you can’t afford to pay a few thousand more on top of the voucher for your children’s education – which accounts for the majority of people in the population – you’ll have to send your children to one of the old state schools – or a new school that’s bizarrely sprung up into an uncompetitive market. These of course now have less money per pupil, fewer pupils from richer socio-economic backgrounds, and fewer good teachers, as the private sector will have lured them away. So the majority of schools will be much worse than before.

    If you’re lucky, the failing school your child has to go to will be close by. Otherwise you’ll have to pay to bus them there too. But you’re probably a single mother and deserve it.

    So overall, school vouchers will have increased the disparity in educational outcomes, not raised them across the board.

    But this is the thing: the free-market is the most effective means of distributing goods and services according to ABILITY TO PAY. It has nothing to do with equitable distribution.

  31. Hmmm… lots of unconvincing things there.

    It is certainly an argument against school vouchers that can be used to subsidise private education – but a lot of places around the world which have vouchers expressly prohibit this.

    I’m also not at all convinced by your claim that lottery systems prohibit choice. So long as the parents get to choose a list of preferred schools, the research I’ve seen suggests that most people will get into one of their top three choices.

    There certainly are problems with voucher systems – I have yet to be convinced the system can work for rural communities for instance. But the problems highlighted in the comment above are easy to circumnavigate and thus a bit beside the point.

  32. Surely a voucher top-up can be paid to rural schools as and when appropriate? You could pay a rural rate based on distance to the nearest two alternative schools, say. It’s hardly an insurmountable problem, just one that would require a (minor) mechanism to operate in addition to the voucher.

    Also, I think that John does speak some sense, in that if it were possible to “top up” vouchers then more rich(er) children would escape to schools that were not filled with poor (and far more likely to be disruptive due to broken homes, general poverty, poor parenting, etc) children, making the schools attended by poorer children even worse.

    Furthermore, one can take two options due to that point – either require that parents escaping the system pay the full cost of the replacement education, or one could apply a “school tax” onto the cost of any education over the value of the voucher. The latter might raise more revenue than the former, by creaming the top-end schools for cash at a rate higher than the cash gained from not having the voucher spent.

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