A return to the system of selection and grammar schools would have a number of benefits - it is tried and tested and it succeeds in educating to a high standard the most able pupils without additional costs to parents. Very importantly, it provides a ladder of opportunity to intelligent children from a working class background that benefits both the pupils themselves and society in general. Grammar schools also have appreciably better records on discipline and tend to instil a greater espirit de corps in their pupils. However, the downside is the limited opportunities available to the majority of children who fail to gain a grammar school place - secondary moderns are rightly seen as poor substitutes, and those who attend them run the risk of being stigmatised as failures. In addition, many critics consider the eleven plus exam to be not always a reliable guide to a child’s potential and, when this system of selection operated on a national basis, the proportion of grammar school pupils could vary between 20% and 40%, a disparity that many would regard as unacceptable.
The voucher system has been heavily promoted by radical thinkers on the Right for over thirty years. This system involves giving every parent a voucher worth the equivalent of the average cost of educating pupils in the state system. So, for example, if the average cost per annum of educating a pupil in the state sector is say £5,000, the voucher would have a monetary value of £5,000. However, it can be spent in any school, not just those in the state system. So, for example, if a school in the independent sector charged £8,000 pa for each pupil, it would be open to parents to use the voucher to contribute £5,000 towards the fees, but they would have to find the remaining £3,000 from their own resources. So, in short, under the voucher system money would follow the pupil. One further benefit is that voucher money would go to schools directly– under a system of control by local education authorities over 30% is siphoned off to bureaucrats. In the 2005 general election the Conservatives proposed a typically watered down version, marketed as 'better school passports', but crucially the voucher would only be accepted in state schools, seriously weakening its impact. The current enthusiasm for academy schools has the same shortcoming.
There is no doubt that the principles underlying the voucher system are very attractive. It would allow parents the maximum degree of choice and, also, render the role of educational authorities almost completely redundant. So it would bring to an end all attempts by the leftist egalitarian ideologues in town halls to impose their utopian social engineering agenda on the nation’s schoolchildren and their parents. Such a system, once introduced, is unlikely to be reversed, as most parents would resist attempts to hand back to bureaucrats, control over the choice of their children’s education.
However, there are possible drawbacks; one is that a voucher scheme has never been implemented in practice in this country (but it has, in more basic formats, been successfully introduced abroad). Although it looks fine in theory, there could be some teething problems after it has been brought into operation. A second area of concern is that the system would cost more from the public purse since parents who currently send their children to independent schools, about 7% of total pupils, would also receive a voucher. Nevertheless, such an increase could be defended since a sound education system benefits not only the pupils themselves but also society as a whole.
The voucher system would have the added benefit of drawing money into the education system as parents avail of the opportunity to top up their voucher from their own resources. It would also end the divide between the public and private sectors since, in effect, all schools would become private. Defenders of the status quo claim that a voucher system would “set school against school”. But this is the essence of competition since it provides the incentive for all schools to raise their game, and also encourages the creation of new schools in areas where there is currently a local monopoly. Such critics are fundamentally opposed to the notion of selection by ability, their motivation instead being misplaced egalitarianism, not educational excellence. Leftists also want to ensure that paternalistic town hall bureaucrats remain in control of education since they fear, probably correctly, that most parents are unlikely to share their social engineering priorities.
However, the major drawback to the voucher system is that it would channel taxpayers’ money to relatively well off parents with less academically gifted children in the independent sector, to the detriment of poorer parents with bright children who would have appreciably less purchasing power. Such a disparity is unlikely to be acceptable to the electorate. So to address the problem the voucher system could be usefully modified to ensure that the benefits are shared by all sections of society. To achieve this, all schools participating in the scheme would be required to allocate a fixed minimum proportion, about 25%, of places to children who would be accepted for the standard voucher amount without a 'top-up'. Such 'scholarships' would be awarded through competitive examination, the criteria to be decided by individual schools, so there would be no return to the eleven plus. This should allow all the benefits of the old selective system without the drawbacks of the secondary moderns, since the voucher system will facilitate the raising of educational standards in all schools.
To encourage the widest possible participation, any schools in the independent sector that opted out would forfeit their charitable status. A system along these lines would allow maximum parental choice, raise educational standards, channel the brightest children towards the best schools, facilitate extra funding from better off parents, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and end all social engineering by liberals in the education system. In practice, most parents will probably want to send their children to their local school. Under the present system they have limited choice, but if there is a risk that they can go elsewhere, schools will be forced to improve if they are to retain the confidence of parents.