The former Blairite minister Alan Milburn is the head of Labour’s Social Mobility Commission. He said the other day that he thinks parents with children in ‘badly performing’ schools should be able to choose a different school. The method he suggests is an Education Credit worth ‘perhaps 150%’ of the child’s education in their current school. So far so good. This would clearly encourage the preferred school to take the pupil.
Alan Milburn has long thought in this way. I am pleased to see him still going in the right direction, not far behind Tory policy. It is true that the Conservative party has yet to embrace the option of freeing up entry to private schools to poorer families. But I am glad to see that we are now planning to let all sorts of organisations set up new academies in poorer areas, so that a ‘free market’ in the state system will gradually improve standards. Parents will vote with their children’s feet by sending them to the best school they can find in their area. The more new schools enabled to open in an area, the more choice local parents will have.
Yet the freedom of choice both we at the moment and Mr Milburn are offering only extends as far as allowing parents to opt for ‘an alternative state school’. It is a little like Henry Ford’s statement about his early motor cars: ‘any colour you like as long as it’s black’.
I have always argued that any such scheme should enable those who want it to choose a private school for their child.
Our current Conservative policy, taking the best from tried and tested systems abroad, particularly Sweden, is encouraging, but in the long run, until we smash down the Berlin wall between private and public education, we will not have freed the people of this country from the social and academic polarisation of clapped-out socialist comprehensives on the one hand and expensive and socially upmarket private schools on the other.
I hope that we will one day find a way to enable even the poorest child in England to be educated at a private school, if his parents think it right for him. Strangely enough, that was the original purpose of Eton College, which was founded to educate 70 poor scholars – hence the term ‘public school’.