‘Let all our schools charge fees and give parents a voucher’

John Newton is headmaster of Taunton School, a co-educational independent school in Somerset, and he believes all parents should be given a £5,000 per year voucher to educate their children at the school of their choice. He suggests it will result in schools improvement and families working together for the good of children. This is from the Guardian…

An Independent School Council survey conducted by Populus shows that most people, given the choice, would send their child to an independent school, and it is now time the government refocused on supporting them. With the cost of a state school education around £5,000 a year, why not give that money back to parents as a voucher? Let them spend it at the school of their choice and let them top up, if they wish, to send their children to their local independent school. Yes, there may still be a funding gap, but as charities, independent schools are duty bound to look closely at every need and do their uttermost to make admission possible.

And we should go further. The majority of all schools could become independent by allowing them the one true freedom: the ability to charge fees. Right now about 7% of children are educated at independent schools; the vast remainder are in state schools. It should be the opposite.

This is all heady stuff, but it is the only way we shall achieve the education system our children deserve. Tight budgets are here to stay. We will never be make the leap in provision schools need to take education to the highest level. A sacrifice from the parent is required; a helping hand from a state mechanism makes this achievable.

The downside? It creates a marketplace, an uneven playing field. Yes, that is true. But wise up. Education is already a market place, biased in favour of the parent with the decent postcode. By cunning management of the education budget, the less affluent schools qualify for extra support that will transform the experience of their children.

Some of that is happening already through the pupil premium. What of those who cannot afford anything, or have very particular needs? In the spirit of the welfare state, government should focus investment on the most needy. It is our most challenging children that deserve the best teachers on the best pay in the small classes with the finest provision, free of charge. Otherwise, everyone can make a sacrifice, small or large, to make their own school better.

The upside? Imagine what more can be achieved by a serious extra injection from parent funding? A top up of £1,000 a year from 1000 parents means £1m extra to spend on facilities, expertise and programmes. The short day, the lack of small class teaching, the patchy provision of sporting and artistic activity, the focus on pastoral care and behaviour management – all can be enhanced by better funding. We want this for our children, but the money is not growing on the government tree. We must look to ourselves.

Is this such a revolutionary idea? We receive nursery vouchers from the state and top up. University education is now avowedly fee charging. What is more, why spend £100,000 per year on taking care of child in a care home when it costs £30,000 per year to send them to a decent boarding school?

Faced with the imperative of educational improvement and the stymied supply of cash, we will not only see schools improve, but also see families work together for the good of the children. We shall also edge closer to that most precious thing of all, the time when we wean ourselves off the narcotic that is the continuous support from a paternalistic, but unwieldy state.

Mr Gove, the ultimate end of education is not a better place on a league table or simply a well-paid job. It is a fulfilled independent life, in which more is given back than is received. Independent schools are renowned the world over for helping pupils achieve this level of schooling. They have been doing it for centuries. And it is the current received wisdom this should be shared. Our society needs to evolve this way if we are to enjoy an affordable future and not lose sight of the truly needy in our midst.

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