I read a blog recently from Harry Webb, Why Conservatives are Wrong About Education. Although the blog is confused about what being a conservative actually means, there were some points that got me thinking. Really the post is about a top down, state-centric education system versus a free market approach.
Interestingly, Webb is arguing for the former – a socialist approach. Yet he ends the blog saying that all kids should be able to have the type of education those privileged to attend private schools have.
The trouble with this, of course, is that the private system is entirely about choice, it is entirely a market approach. Consumers can send their children to any school they wish and so are able to choose based on how well they think a school will perform for their child. And if the school is crap, they send them elsewhere.
An argument that bounces around a lot in education is whether schools should be able to be privatised and particularly whether they should be allowed to make a profit (interestingly, this argument often ignores the fact that there are already schools in England that make profits).
As a conservative, I do believe in the market. I believe that individuals should be at the heart of their own lives and should be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
So what if, instead of the socialist, top-down approach, we said that every single child can have a private education? What would this do to education and standards?
The starting point to this discussion needs to be to point out that economically it is entirely possible.
There are private schools that charge massive fees, but actually on the whole, the majority of the 2500 or so private schools in England do not. The price of private education has risen sharply in the last five years, but even now the average annual fees for non-boarding come it at around £11,000. And remember, this figure is skewed upwards because of the very high charging schools.
Now, in the state system the amount of funding provided per child might appear to be lower. But actually, it isn't.
I'm writing this on a flight, so these figures are from memory, but the amount of money dedicated to education that then goes in to the schools budget is around £64 billion per year.
There are approximately 8.1 million children in schooling.
This gives an average per child per year funding of around £7,900
But, and here's the real point, the amount of tax receipts dedicated to education overall is around £97 billion.
This gives a funding of around £12,000 per child per year. More than the average private school child.
So what if, instead of funding a Department for Education, Local Authorities, layers of consultancies, Quangos (or 'Executive Agencies' as they have been lovingly rebranded) and Ofsted... Instead of funding all of this... what if every single parent was simply issued with an education voucher for £12,000 per child per year? Parents could spend this voucher at any school of their choice.
Perhaps then, schools would strive to be the most attractive, schools might want to shout about their grades and extra-curricular offers and so on.
This is what running a private school is like. Having to attract enough students to make the venture economically viable. And parents having choice. And when consumers have choice, they choose the best they can get.
I'm neither advocating this approach or saying that it shouldn't happen, it's just that Harry Webb's blog made me think it might be worth a debate.
Of course, as a libertarian, my instincts are to allow the money to go straight to the parents and schools in this way. I baulk at the billions that are wasted and would rather local communities were given the ability to set their own destinies.
I understand that this is the socialist's nightmare – to trust individuals – and that they feel the need to control and nanny. But what if a free market approach could lead to bettering the life chances of everyone in our society?
I'd love to hear what people think about this in both camps. I'd be interested to be convinced that the socialists are right. Or a 'third way'?