Saturday, 27 October 2007

Vouchers for Education - a first thought

The notion that the government should get out of the business of providing education and instead grant vouchers to parents to spend on schooling their children where they like is a notion that I instinctively agree with, but on further reflection, I think that there are some important caveats that need to be made on such a position in order for such a proposal to actually work.

Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine that we have vouchers and that therefore parents can spend their vouchers and contribute their own funds on top of the vouchers. I presume that this is traditionally possible under voucher schemes.

Now, at the moment, if the parents of a child want to take hir out of state schooling and put hir into private education, they must meet the full additional cost. However, with vouchers, those who can afford even a small amount of money beyond the vouchers can send their child to a better school.

What I imagine that would lead to would be a greater flight of the middle classes from what are currently comprehensive schools to what are currently grammar / independent / grant-maintained schools. To higher-quality schools, anyway. Leaving those without the ability to pay with a mediocre school and, far more importantly in my view, surrounded by all those others who cannot pay for a better school either. Poor families are disproportionately dysfunctional, and so the poorer schools would be disproportionately stocked with dysfunctional pupils, who not only fail to attain themselves, but can hold back the attainment of others. That's what I consider to be deeply unfair about vouchers.

If one stopped parents being able to pay on top of vouchers, you'd basically criminalize home tutoring and so on, which would be madness. And it probably wouldn't work anyway - the best schools would be oversubscribed and thus able to pick all of the least-likely-to-be-disruptive pupils, because they are cheaper to teach and are less likely to negatively affect other pupils' outcomes, maintaining their reputation as a good school.

My qualms are therefore twofold:

1. That by reducing the direct cost of improved education to parents, that more of the richer parents will take their better-quality pupils to better quality schools, thereby giving their children an advantage over others that is solely due to ability to pay. This does not sit well with my egalitarian beliefs that everyone should get the same life chances, as far as we are able to give them.

2. That by allowing schools the power to select their intake, coupled with a requirement to teach each child for £x000, will naturally encourage all schools to select the pupils that are cheap to teach, which are largely the bright and hard-working.

I would therefore like to propose a different market-based solution to the problem of privatizing education, to be discussed in a later post.


John Locke's Ghost said...

You don't have to imagine how it would work out. Just look at the Netherlands, they have used school vouchers for over 90 years. And I haven't heard that they would have had any major problems. But they do have much more choice.

sanbikinoraion said...

I think that the Netherlands is a special case, in that parents can choose a public school or a religious school for their vouchers, but not a private school. Private school attendees must may the full fees out of their own pocket IIRC.

That's not quite the same as the proposal I put forth above for vouchers, and I suspect that it does not jive with most voucher-proponents notions of a voucher system for the UK.

It seems like the best evidence for a voucher system is good old Sweden:

However, the Swedish tax and benefit system, social model and levels of inequality are all very different from our own, are they not? And on that basis I suspect that Sweden is not a good data point for considering what would happen if one were to introduce vouchers to Britain.

Tristan said...

One major flaw in your thinking - you assume that the same schools and same number of schools will exist and they will operate in the same way as now.

For the system to work you need to ensure that new schools are easy to set up and that schools are able to experiment with how they teach and what they teach.

The other side is that failing schools will go out of business because they cannot get the pupils.

The situation you describe as possibly happening also happens today, with the added effect that those who have the ability are held back by those who disrupt the education. There is also a great deal of fatalism in parents, especially poorer ones, there is no opportunity to better the chances of their children so why bother? At least with this, more scholarships will be available (schools could raise their fees slightly and include a wider range of wealth and use the extra to provide scholarships) and people have the opportunity to change the schools and to seek out the best education. If they fail to do that, then there is nothing that can be done, I believe however that most people will.

A great example of poor people doing that were the Harlem Shop Front Schools, poor people in Harlem set up schools of their own and paid for it themselves to give their children an education (then the state got involved and they went downhill).

I think you over estimate the desire and ability of the poorest in society to help themselves if given the opportunity.

Tristan said...

Just ticking the get follow-ups box :)

And I look forward to reading your suggestions.

Richard Gadsden said...

This addresses the well-know "dead weight" problem with vouchers - which is that there is a a big cost in subsidising those that already buy private education

Mark Wadsworth said...

Richard, there is no deadweight cost:

Only 7% or so of kids go private. Indeed, the money spent on their vouchers would be 'wasted'.

But ... as long as the vouchers are less than average spend per state pupil (anything as much as £8,000 depending on which stat's you believe) then the overall cost of education system would go DOWN and/or the amount spent on kids you remain in pure state schools could go UP.

As I posted here.