Fraser Nelson, The Spectator, 30 January 2009
When Reform Scotland was set up, I feared for their prospects. Although Scotland was birthplace of the Enlightenment, its new parliament has failing strikingly to produce any new ideas. It has instead proved a reactionary force, priding itself in banning things before England does and using powers to reject reform introduced by Blair in England. So what chance do new ideas have? But Reform Scotland has today produced a proposal that has set debate aflame: why not give a £10,000 schools voucher to parents from poor backgrounds?
It\’s the subject of a BBC Radio Scotland phone in, which shows the paucity of the arguments on the other side. One is that private schools are just for the rich, who want their kids to mix with other posh kids. Pre-welfare state, this was true: in the 1950s private schools were no better educationally than state schools. But now the performance gap between UK state schools and private schools is the largest in the world.
Reform is running a little ahead of the Tory party here (which hasn\’t, as yet, put even an indicative price on its voucher) but you can see the principles at stake. Reform Scotland argues that a parent in Easterhouse or Castlemilk (beautiful names, scummy estates) has precisely the same ambition for their child as a parent in Bearsden or Milngavie. But rather than pouring more money into state schools, it\’s time to think about pupils rather than schools. After all, in Scotland – where state education spending is 20% higher than England\’s (see here, Table 9.11) – the cash gap between sink schools and the private ones is tiny. Devolution has created a hideous social experiment, showing England what happens when cash is poured into an unreformed system. The potential for voucher-driven change in Scotland is incredible. How can the left possibly have against giving the poor being the same choice of schools as the rich?
This is the perfect Tory reform programme. And one which David Cameron is, of course, proposing for England. Yet it\’s easy to forget this fact, as he doesn\’t say much about it – for reasons that have always mystified me. Especially as school reform is the most potentially revolutionary policy in his arsenal. If Alex Salmond chose, he could issue legislation saying that children in deprived areas are entitled to an education voucher worth whatever the per capita spending at the local school is. This would do more to promote social mobility than anything Westminster has done in the last decade.
As Glasgow shows, it is not lack of money condemning poor kids to poor schools but political ideology – a point Cameron\’s Tories should be yodelling from the rooftops. Cameron needs to get going; to plant the idea in the imaginations of wavering voters; to say to the deprived kids that their voucher would be worth £10,000, and say to everyone else that theirs would be worth £7,000. This would get civil society thinking and encourage groups to start planning schools to set up in the event of a Tory government. Reform Scotland have given the Tories in the UK a taste of how much mileage there is in this agenda which could, if done properly. end sink schools forever. And that would be something worth voting for.