As a nation, can we afford private education funded by taxation? For that is surely what Nick Clegg was offering when he said in his keynote speech earlier today:
“But I am totally unapologetic for believing that, as we continue to build a new type of state funded school system – in which parents are presented with a dizzying range of independent, autonomous schools, each with its own different specialism, ethos or mission “
So if you want a school for your child, and are prepared to meet the food standards, follow the National Curriculum, and employ qualified teachers, my Party, the Lib Dems, will fund it even if there is another school down the road. As a result could every humanist is a village with a Church of England primary school have an academy that looks like a typical community school even though both schools will be half empty? I bet the Treasury wouldn’t approve that. But, Nick might, of course, have been talking only about urban areas.
With the huge rise in the pupil population that is occurring over the next decade we will certainly need more school places, as David Laws discussed for two hours yesterday with the Education Select Committee members at Westminster. But, choice, and a funding guarantee for existing schools, plus the Pupil Premium, means any further inflow of pupil numbers from hard-pressed parents currently paying for school fees that now want the State to pay for their child’s education, but on their own terms in respect to ethos and mission, and presumably admission criteria, and who might see this parental guarantee as a good deal, will cost the State money to finance the switch of sectors for these children. In 2002, I calculated that the cost of such a transfer might be more than £2 billion, and it would certainly be more now. It might even bring back many of the former direct grant day schools that left the state system over the issue of comprehensive intakes in the 1970s since they presumably meet most of the criteria set by Mr Clegg.
If this huge influx of new schools happens in the secondary sector over the next few years, then either other services will be less well funded or taxes will have to rise.
Nick’s other big idea, of superheads for failing schools, has been tried before with mixed results. The difference this time is that he seems to expect these new head teachers to take the job for the long-haul rather just until the school improves. But that’s what every chairman says when they appoint a new football manager. If these superheads are to be employed by Whitehall, then it is another nail in the coffin of local authorities’ involvement in education. After all, until recently, Oxfordshire and many other authorities had a pool of primary heads to undertake just this sort of role, and they already knew the school and the area. The money might be better spent identifying what works for schools that are under-performing, and providing local help and support. In some cases it might mean a new head, but in others raising aspirations or dealing with a problem outside the school that is affecting a group of children may be what is needed to raise performance.