The case for the pro-voucher school of thought- Scotsman

Brian Monteith, The Scotsman, 7 December 2009

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I have often thought that it is only when a politician has ministerial power that one really finds out what he or she is made of. It is easy to write pamphlets and books when there are no electoral tests to submit to. It is still relatively easy to come up with clever policies when an opposition spokesman, as the responsibilities of government are not on one\’s shoulders, but to devise and deliver on lasting policies shows you are a serious player worthy of respect.

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Last week, Mike Russell was made education secretary – and to many people\’s surprise was found to have supported education vouchers in a book published during his brief, but rejuvenating, wilderness years outside the Scottish Parliament. Now, with the SNP government also making noises about taking control of education away from the local councils, all eyes are on Mr Russell to see what he does next. Will he prove his worth?

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But what are vouchers? More properly called educational credits-for now prices of paper are actually issued- the system means that, instead of politicians and officials distributing funds to school with strict guidelines on how it is spent, the average cost of state funding follows the child to the school of the parents’ choice.

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Not only does the system incentivise schools to improve and drives standards up, it creates a market for new school to open or existing popular schools to expand by running more schools. Critics argue that the vouchers mean some school will lose custom and close, and indeed this can happen, but it does mean that the parents dictate which school are no longer viable rather than politicised education committees. It is not as if schools are protected under the present system- next year Glasgow proposes to close 13 primaries.

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Vouchers can be provided for all pupils or limited to children with special needs (thus making it attractive for schools to include them, as the extra costs can be met) or targeted at children from the poorest families where improved academic attainment is most needed. The money that follows the pupil might be restricted to only state schools or it may include independent schools too. One of the attractions of vouchers is that you can design a programme to suit any country’s educational landscape.

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Research by the Reform Scotland think tank shows it is not that children from deprived backgrounds are less able than their wealthier counterparts; it is that some schools in poorer areas are failing their pupils. The answer is to help children into better schools, and education vouchers achieve this.

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