Fraser Nelson

Controlling the classroom

Controlling the classroom
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A friend is on the board of an independent school, and has been attending more than the usual amount of meetings recently. They are discussing whether the burden of government interference has become so great that they should become a profit-seeking organisation. This would be financed by stopping taking in new pupils from poor areas – a duty it the school has been proud to do since its inception. It’s all being done with a heavy heart, but the cost of the school upkeep is soaring and they fear closure. Having to obey yet more central government marching orders will not endear them to the overseas parents, on whom they are now financially dependent. Yet the Charity Commission is tomorrow expected to recommend that such schools will be instructed to either offer more subsidised places, enter partnerships with local state schools and basically be bossed around a lot more if they want to keep their tax-free status. It’s the type of instruction likely to push many private schools over the edge.

I know that Gordon Brown will get some political capital from being seen to bring these wicked private schools in line. But is the outcome I describe above really what he has in mind? In addition to his contemptible abolition of the assisted places, is he determined to rid every private school of their disadvantaged pupils?

What I would love is for him to fight the Tories by adopting their Swedish voucher system himself, offer them the state average of £5,500 a head - with a guarantee of no interference - and then tell his lefties that he’s nationalised these schools. The school I have in mind would then take in plenty of state pupils. Sure, their current £8,500 private fee is higher, but with extra kids to a classroom that could be guaranteed under the state voucher system the economics can stack up. (The pupil-teacher ratio in private schools average is 9.3, v 16.7 for state schools).

Many schools looking at their options carefully would follow suit. Get the planning system sorted and more schools would open. A Labour triumph. This reform could be enacted with a footnote in the Budget, allowing the state voucher to go to schools. Brown would deny the Tories one of the most attractive and powerful policies in their arsenal.

But Brown prefers his beloved five-year plans, his ill-conceived Building Schools for the Future fund and his instinct to control, control, control.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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