Two cheers for Alan Milburn’s school proposals – by Edward Leigh MP

AlanMilburnI have written recently about how the lack of government support means that low and middle income families are disadvantaged when it comes to choosing a school for their children. The policies the Labour party have so far put into practice, such as setting up academies, are commendable, but they have not gone far enough. They have not yet enabled poorer parents to access private education for their children.

This has perpetuated a Berlin wall between state and private education.

With this in mind I was interested to read Alan Milburn discussing his social mobility report in an article for The Times. Much of what he has to say I agree with. He recognises that there is still much work to be done, acknowledging that children from the poorest 15 per cent of the country are a third less likely to get good qualifications than their better-off peers, and that poor schools are far more likely to fall in poor areas.

His proposals are commendable as far as they go, based as they are on evidence from the US, Sweden and other countries that have experimented with various methods of opening up educational opportunity to the poorest. But of course they still do not go far enough. The Berlin wall is still in place.

The current threat by the government to remove charitable status from private schools if they fail to justify their public usefulness by providing a number of places for those who can’t afford their fees obviously demonstrates a desire to enable access to these schools. But it is the wrong approach. I would be far more radical.

The way to free our education system from its current paralysis is by allowing the cost of a pupil’s schooling to follow the pupil into whatever school the parents choose for them, be it state or independent.

In essence my policy would be to return to parents the money they have paid in tax and say to them: “Just as you have the duty to bring up and educate your children, and have paid tax for this purpose, so this Conservative government is giving you back the financial means to choose for them the type of education you think best.” It is parents who know best what is right for their children, not civil servants or minsters in Whitehall.

I hope that the excellent plans announced by Michael Gove will eventually develop further in this direction.

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