Sunday, March 07, 2004

Could Try Harder

Not one of the least strange things about Gordon Brown is his attitude to business. Gordy appears genuinely to believe that business is a seething cess-pit of criminals, frauds and degenerates. Hence, the creation of such bodies as the Competition Commission and the strengthening of Trading Standards groups. The CC, and the supporting legislation, is designed around the idea that cackling, top-hatted capitalists are constantly plotting to rig the market, while other consumer legislation is based on the idea that Vauxhall would sell exploding cars if they thought they could get away with it. Yet, when we consider one of our most important industries, completely the opposite attitudes prevail. Its key players are encouraged to carve up the market, successful suppliers deliberately operate under capacity while anything except the grossest violations of standards provokes only a mild rebuke. Maybe Labour don't really give a toss about education after all ?

Given that I bang on about school vouchers every chance I get, you think I'd be pleased with the latest announcement from the Zombie Party, but no. I mean, blah, blah, blah, step in the right direction and other such clich├ęs, but (as ever) too little mint, too much hole.

As far as kids switching from state to private schools goes, then, yes, this scheme should help. Many kids who were previously stuck in Stayte Skools will now have the chance to escape into the private sector. Which is nice. But it still doesn't help those children whose families can't even stump up the top-ups required - who will tend to be those in the areas with the worst schools. Equally, the fact remains that parents are already paying for their children's schooling - after all, that was the justification for the tax hikes Labour brought in. Rescuing the maximum number of kids from the Marxist buffoons in the public sector is a good, short-term measure (unlike the Left, we should not countenance destroying children's education for some kind of hand-wavey concept of the public good ) but, for the foreseeable future, most British children will be educated in the state sector.

Here's where the idea breaks down. Vouchers would help parents switch to the private sector, but state schools don't cost anything anyway. So, does the scheme mean that schools will receive a bonus equivalent to the cost of the voucher for every extra pupil taken on ? Does that apply to all pupils or just those from out of area ? (in which case, how to counter the incentive for the Head of Southside High to fill the ranks with pupils from North Rd Comp ?). Will schools which load up with voucher pupils have their budgets protected from retaliation by the LEA ? Certainly, plenty of schools could double their capacity and still be oversubscribed - will they be able to borrow to fund expansion ? Und so weiter.

Of course, there is a reason for this caginess. The Conservatives don't want to emphasise to the staff of Awful St Comp that if these proposals go through, they're in serious trouble. Still, there are problems with the current low-key approach. Labour will not need any cattle prodding to try and depict it as purely a middle-class tax break (which, in terms of private education, it clearly is). Plenty of parents are deeply concerned about their children's education yet can't see themselves going private with anything less than a 100% subsidy. To them, it will seem like abandonment.

Howard should state three things clearly: education exists for the benefit of the pupils and no one else, St Fabulo's School can expand to the size of Jupiter, just as long as the demand is there and (this is vital) any attempts to rig the market in education will be treated just like the heads of Tesco and Asda meeting to discuss the prices they pay to farmers - like a serious offence. We're paying through the nose for this, so its about time we had some service.

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