Bruce Anderson

Passport to Eton?

Bruce Anderson says the Tories’ revolutionary new education policy will devolve power to schools and parents

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Bruce Anderson says the Tories’ revolutionary new education policy will devolve power to schools and parents

In 1874, Disraeli told the House of Commons that ‘Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.’ Over the subsequent decades, few senior Tories would have disagreed — yet hardly any of them can be said to have put those words into practice. Rab Butler did devise the 1944 Act which was intended to shape the structure of post-war education. Less than 30 years later, Margaret Thatcher was dismantling it. She turned more grammar schools into comprehensives than any other Education Secretary, with few safeguards to ensure that they did not become bog-standard comprehensives.

That was Thatcher before Thatcherism, but even in her long years of power and ideology, education remained un-Thatcherised. There are no grounds for thinking that children in state schools were receiving a better education at the end of the Thatcher-Major years than in 1979. It seemed as if there was truth in the gibe that Tories did not really care about state schools, because they did not use them for their own offspring.

Now, however, the Tories are determined to rebut the charge of neglect. They are proposing nothing less than an educational revolution. Yet it is a curious revolution: an odd mixture of boldness and timidity. It is as if the Tories had become Fabians and were proposing to achieve their revolution through the inevitability of gradualness.

The Tory strategy is easy to summarise: spending and choice. For the first time ever, the party will go into the next election proposing to spend more on schools than Labour would. Tories will also insist that unlike Labour, they can achieve value for money. They will do this by devolving power to schools and parents. In future, schools will report downwards, to the parents, rather than upwards to local authorities and Whitehall. That should save on bureaucratic costs while leading to increased pressure for higher standards. Parental choice, and power, will be achieved via the passport. This will entitle children to an education at any state school. As the money will follow the child, good schools will be able to increase their numbers and their budgets. Bad ones will come under pressure.

That is the theory, but there are obvious practical problems. In some areas of the country, and especially in many cities, there are simply too few good schools. Choice would be a two-way process: ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ The good schools would be able to select the pupils they want. A lot of parents of less able pupils would have to endure the frustration of making a choice, and then being denied it.

Nor could expansion provide all the answers. There is a limit to the extent to which a good school could expand and still remain good. Mr Chips may have been an inspired teacher of Latin to 18 boys in the Lower Fourth. He could not achieve the same effect over a Tannoy to several hundred pupils in Portakabins. In the first phase, for a fair number of parents, an education passport would be no more useful than a food passport in the old Soviet Union. There is no point in guaranteeing access to non-existent supplies.

That said, no children would be worse off under the passport system. If they were condemned to a failing school, so they would have been under the present arrangements. But the passport would increase parental discontent because it would dramatise the failure of the market in British education.

As societies grow richer, the demand for certain goods increases, and entrepreneurs prosper by meeting it. There is no doubt that the potential demand for better education is very high in Britain, but it is not allowed to express itself. Most parents do not have the option of inviting entrepreneurs to provide the schools that they would want, because they are forced to pay a lot of money in tax to finance the schools that they do not want. They are not rich enough to pay twice for their children’s education.

There is an answer to this: a voucher scheme. Under it, the passport would have a cash value and the parents could use it in any school, state or private. If private, they would probably be required to top it up, but that would be possible for many parents who could not pay the full fees.

At moments, the Tories have come close to turning the passport into a voucher. Indeed, passports would have a nominal cash value and parents would be entitled to use them in private schools, as long as they covered the entire cost of the education. Topping-up would be forbidden.

This could create injustices. In Barchester, the Cathedral School is a rich foundation, thanks to the unexpected munificence of Bishop Proudie’s legacy. Once a humble dwelling in Eastcheap, it is now the site of the 120-storey headquarters of the Imperial and Global Bank. As a result, the school has been able to keep its fees low. It would be glad to recruit scholars and sportsmen from less well-off families in Barchester, and the passport would cover everything.

Emsworth College, Market Blandings, is not as affluent. It was named after the local great family in the hope of attracting endowments, but thus far, those have taken the form of a leather-bound set of the Journal of Pig Husbandry. The college is adequately financed because enough local parents can meet its fees, but it could not afford to reduce those to passport level. It would require another few hundred a year. Imagine the anguish of ambitious, self-sacrificing, poorer parents in Market Blandings, who could scrape together the few hundred pounds which might transform their children’s prospects but are forbidden to do so. I would not enjoy being the Tory candidate who had to justify that.

Nor would I be comfortable explaining the policy at a think-tank lunch for educational entrepreneurs. A lot of companies are aware of the possibilities of the British educational market. If they thought that they could fill their schools at fees of around £5,000 a year for day pupils, many of them would start looking for premises. If the parents could use the passport to cover the bulk of the cost, large numbers of new schools would rapidly come on the market.

Yet one could understand why the Tories took the decision that they did. There is a one-word explanation: politics. If a passport were a voucher, it would subsidise the education of existing public-school pupils. So the Tories would be accused of devising a system which would divert resources from the education budget while doing nothing to help ordinary parents. The passport would merely subsidise school fees at Eton.

Yet there are ways round that apparently insuperable political problem. The passport could be drastically means-tested, so that existing private-sector parents would receive little or no help. But the Tories are still wary of the political hazards. According to their focus groups, 75 per cent of parents are enthusiastic about increased choice as delivered by the passport. Seventy-five per cent are also strongly against state subventions for private schools. As one Tory MP closely involved in the passport policy put it, ‘We cannot hope to eliminate 400 years of class resentment in the 12 months before a general election.’

The Tories have a further point, which does owe more to the idealism of social progress and less to the cynical realities of opinion research. They insist that their main aim is not to provide escape ladders from the state sector. Around 7 per cent of pupils now attend private schools. Even if that figure could be doubled, the Tories would be far more interested in the welfare of the other 86 per cent. They want a better state system for all, not an exit visa for a minority.

Given electoral realities, that is probably as far as it is safe for the Tories to go. But every step in the direction of passports will open up further vistas of liberalisation. Tim Collins, the party’s educ ation spokesman, points out that Mrs Thatcher did not introduce all her trade union reforms on day one; nor did she privatise everything overnight. There was a sustainable pace of change. So there would be on education. If the Tories are given the chance to introduce passports for all, there will be vouchers for all within a decade. At last, the Tory party is bracing itself to Thatcherise British education.