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May 13, 2007


Mark Holland

Why won't it?

Because in my experience, and as Tony Blair could probably testify, most Labour supporters see 60 year old means as ends in themselves.

Bishop Hill

By "more school autonomy" I hope you mean wholesale privatisation.

Luis Enrique

Silva's work looks very interesting.

I think one concern of the opponents of vouchers and competiton in schooling is the question of what happens to failing schools. Nobody much minds if an unsuccessful footwear manufacturer goes out of business (well, save the workers) but the process of watching a school go under is harder to imagine, especially as the pupils stuck at such schools are likely to be the most disadvantaged. But on the other hand, if bad schools aren't allowed to go out of business, then the incentives are buggered up - if you 'fail' and just get given more money to turn things around.

At the other end, its not each to see how successful schools can expand without starting implicit rationing and getting a multiplier effect from peer effects (schools with better pupils become even better schools).

I suppose you could just make sure the head teachers of failing schools are fired, that ought to provide incentive enough.

Anyway, I'd like to see some inventive mechanisms to handle the problems that would come with school failure and success - perhaps it exists, i don't know it.

I tried to figure something out along the lines of bench mark regulations (where firm A is paid according to what firm B does and viice versa) - something like the salaries of teachers being paid according to what's happening at the neighbouring school (so when one school is bad and the other good, the bigger the gap gets the higher the salaries at the bad school get and the lower the salaries at the good school - to encourage good teachers into bad schools). But then I decided it was a rubbish idea.


Although I don't think the state school sector is in a bad shape (in fact on almost all measures its improved massively) but it's probably worth an experiment (although I'll note here that social experimenting with children's education wasn't so popular when it came to that school in Peterborough).

The crucial aspect, though, is going to be whether you allow top-ups or not. If you do, then I suspect Andrew is right that people in the Labour Party won't like it, and I imagine the house price effect (which I think is unavoidable) will of course pale into insignificance compared to an old-fashioned income effect.

If you don't allow top-ups, then it will be a real test of whether its resources or design, as these are going to be much less well-funded private schools. At present, the average private day school fee is £8,750 a year, compared with state school spending this year at £5,275. So that's a 65% difference, even before taking into account arguments made by people like Tim Worstall that the LEA wastes 33% of that. If this claim is correct (I'm a little sceptical) then it means the average private school pupil has spent on him/her 2.5 times that of a state school pupil, or as much in two years as the state school pupil does in his/her entire compulsory secondary education.


Commenter Kit at the good Bishop's blog mentions tax credits as an alternative to vouchers, and cites

Mark Wadsworth

Labour are just stupid. The Tories introduced Nursery Vouchers, every three year old who goes to nursery got £x per day to be redeemed at private nursery providers.

Margaret Hodge (idiot) stood up in Commons and said that this lead to competition between providers (a Bad Thing) and would replace them with "Early Years Funding" which would "encourage cooperation between parents and providers".

And how does EYF work? Exactly the same as Nursery Vouchers.

tom s.

With school choice the devil is very much in the details.

You say "US research ... suggests that choice raises educational attainment" but this is wrong on two counts.

First, Hoxby looks at a single example of vouchers in the US - Milwaukee - whose program is one of the most successful. The relative success of that program is not an indicator that "vouchers work".

Second, the Milwaukee program is not what the simple word "vouchers" suggests. It's a targeted program restricted to a limited, small number of students at the lower end of the income scale. This is different to universal vouchers, which tend to subsidize those who are already leaving the public system (as in Chile).

Finally, in Milwaukee schools were not permitted to choose among students but applicants were selected by lottery. Harry Brighouse (see Crooked Timber) is a big proponent of using lotteries in school choice, and it's an important element. But it does move these programs away from being "choice".

In some ways, the Milwaukee program has more in common with an affirmative action program than with a school choice program.

But Chris, you know all this already because it's on page 150 of "No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart" (http://www.tomslee.net) which you reviewed last autumn.

Bishop Hill


I'm not sure that the comparison between spending at private schools and state ones is fair. How much of the private school fee is actually spent on fluff (maintenance of ancient buildings, provision of swimming pools, stabling for the pony and so on)?

The New Model School in London provides a private education for less than £5k.


Ha, bish, depends on the private school. We moved my daughter from a school with small classes, ample playing fields and a swimming pool, to one with none of those. It was the former that was State, the latter Private. We wish we'd done it earlier.

Bob B

I think S&M and several contributors here are overlooking the implications of the "Greenwich judgement":

"It was back in 1989 that what has become known throughout the education world as 'the Greenwich judgement' established that local education authority-maintained schools may not give priority to children simply because they live in the council’s geographical area."

This means that the outstanding maintained selective schools in the London borough of Sutton cannot restrict entry to the children of local residents - the quality of Sutton's schools can be judged from the borough's usual ranking near the top of the Local Education Authority league table for England:

The (predictable) daily consequence is that hordes of pupils attending the borough's selective schools can be observed commuting to the schools from all over much of south London and the excellence of Sutton's maintained selective schools has probably had little impact on local house prices.

Bob B

A second comment is that to judge from many, many news reports, there is much scope for justified doubts regarding the sweeping claims made about the government's improvements to education:

"More young people are out of work now than when Labour won power in 1997 by promising to cut youth unemployment, official figures obtained by The Times reveal.

"There are now 37,000 more unemployed people aged 16 to 24 than in May 1997, with the total rising from 665,000 to 702,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

"The unemployment rate has risen to 14.5 per cent among young people, overtaking the 14.4 per cent rate Labour inherited from the Conservative Government. . .

"Out of work:

"665,000 Unemployed aged 16 to 24 in May 1997
"702,000 Unemployed between 16 and 24 now
"22.5% Unemployment rate for Londoners aged 16 and 17 in 1997
"42.9% Unemployment rate for Londoners aged 16 and 17 now
"11,200 16 to 24-year-olds claiming benefit for more than a year last month "


As the "knowledged-based economy" comes to contribute an increasingly large share of the GDPs of affluent countries, what will become the downstream fate of the 220,000 or so 16 to 18-year-olds in Britain who are not in education, employment or training unless we can pull up schooling standards rather smartly? "There are now 1.24 million people aged between 15 and 24 who are neither in education, work or in a training scheme — a 15 per cent increase on 1997. The rise has been particuarly rapid for 16 to 17-year-olds and men, both up by almost a third."

"Academics have challenged ministers’ claims of improved pupil performance in national tests and GCSEs.

"Government research obtained by The TES compares the results of pupils in England with teenagers in other countries. The findings weaken ministers’ claims that pupils are getting better at English, maths and science. . . The analysis found evidence that pupils who had achieved average results in key stage 3 tests in English, maths and science and GCSEs performed worse in the 2003 tests than those in 2000."
Times Educational Supplement 18 August 2006


"I don't think the state school sector is in a bad shape"

Ah, but were to begin?

Funny you should mention the old school vouchers; was having a bit of a read about them on Friday. I still don't understand how they're supposed to work. Could one of their advocates explain a couple of points?

a) How is the problem of transport costs overcome? For example, if you live in the East End of Glasgow, you're going to have to get out of that part of town altogether. Unless you're willing, and able, to make a trek, your choice is going to be rather limited.

b) My understanding is that in Sweden, for example, the schools aren't allowed to charge top-ups, select according to ability or anything like that, but have to take students on a first come, first served basis. But how does this differ from the placing-requests system as it operates in Scotland, for example? Can't say I've noticed this raising standards - but maybe that's just me.

c) My understanding of the Swedish model is that parents can access private schools with vouchers because the per capita cost of educating pupils is roughly equivalent. This is not the case in Britain. English private schools spend around three times as much as the state sector. Are Eton and Harrow going to be compelled to give access to parents with nothing to spend but vouchers?

d) Should we really be looking at the United States as a model here? Let's say school vouchers *have* raised standard. But they're starting from a very low base and still fall well-below the standards that one could expect to enjoy in Finland, for example, which has a fully comprehensive system. Sweden's a different case. As someone from Crooked Timber pointed out, it's rather selective of advocates of school choice to take the bits they like about the Swedish system and ignore the much more egalitarian base from which their system operates.

e) What happens to those left behind? Who cares about them? No-one, as far as I can see.


Transport is a very good point.

I'm also not sure how the mechanism to improve standards will work in practice. I believe the idea is that good schools will attract more applications, but a school cannot just expand to meet the demand at will, so there'll have to be some kind of rationing mechanism in the short-medium term. If it's not price (ie top up fees), then will be interviews or exams or catchment areas?

Vouchers will only really work if there's a huge new expansion in schools, which I think is unlikely in inner cities, at least within the funds provided by a voucher.

Bishop Hill mentions the "New Model School", which is an interesting concept, but it should be noted that there is only one of them, currently lodging in the upstairs of a church hall (near my house), and it takes primary age pupils only. So whether it represents the future remains to be seen.

Marcin Tustin

I assume that school voucher schemes in the US have achieved better outcomes through the standard free market triumvirate: choice, autonomy, and insolvency for the inadequate.

chris strange

Well there is some precedence for this form a left-liberal point of view. J S Mill once advocated something rather similar; that since it was so important that schools be as free as possible from state control in order to make sure the poor could be givern an education they should be givern state bursaries. School vouchers can also be seen as a form of CBI for citizens younger than the lower bound of the normal CBI. But for a voucher system to be of any use it does mean giving up centralised control so that the market forces that it is trying to harness actually get a chance to work, that will be the sticking point.

re: shuggy
No idea about any of your other points. But with point c since Eton and Harrow will already admit people even if they don't even have vouchers to spend, so long as they are smart enough to get one of the scholarships, then they are very likely to admit people with only vouchers in the same way. Where I to be a bit chippy I could say they need some people their smart enough to maintain their positions in the league tables so as to attract the big spenders.


Hmmm, I'm interested in the whole freedom from local authority thing. I dunno if this is what does it but the school that gets the best results in Glasgow, outstripping even those in the private sector, is Jordanhill. It's the only one in the city that has self-governing status and beats the next best performing state school by a mile. The way it works at present is you have to sell a kidney to buy a house in the catchment area. But there's no doubt the house prices followed the quality of the school, rather than the other way around.


slightly O/T but given the economic focus of this blog, i thought you'd be interested in this post of mine.


I have argued that had Gordon Brown simply maintained govt spending in real terms at the level he inherited from the Major govt, he could have entirely abolished personal income taxes.

Would be interested in your thoughts on my methodology. I have checked the workings with a couple of economists at the Aus Libertarian Society and they agree that it's valid.

btw - thanks for linking to my article on school vouchers.


I don't think the reason that the left opposes vouchers is status quo bias, it is due to the strength of teachers unions in funding the left. Their opposition is based on the principle that it is "unfair" to teachers to expose them to market forces, not that there will be bad consequences for children. Teaching, you see, is a vocation, not a job. Better that a thousand children suffer than one incompetent teacher lose his job.

School vouchers seem to me to one area where for once equalitarians and libertarians can agree. Equalitarians should prefer them (for the reasons Chris suggests) to the current system where the rich have better education choices than the poor either directly (public schools) or indirectly (expensive house prices). Libertarians because of the obvious freedom that vouchers bring. The argument for these two groups about whether there is a link between choice and achievement is irrelevent, the equality or freedom that vouchers bring are good in themselves.


The argument for these two groups about whether there is a link between choice and achievement is irrelevent

not quite true, Chris.

Not all libertarians believe in freedom for freedom's sake. Most of us are utilitarians (freedom is good because it works)

Bishop Hill


In response to some of your points:

(a) Transport costs will be a barrier to competition to some poorer people. But if the middle classes leave a school because it's underperforming it will be forced to change anyway. A school has a very high fixed cost base, which makes it very sensitive to changes in pupil numbers.

(b) The difference between a voucher system and the placing requests system in Scotland is in the commercial imperative. A voucher system is pointless unless all the schools are private and are forced to respond to the needs of their customers. Scottish state schools don't have to do this.

(c) Spending in private schools is much higher, but see my previous post on this thread. Much of the extra spending is on fripperies. But to respond directly to your point, no Eton will not have to accept students on a voucher if it doesn't cover the cost of education there. But let's remember what we are trying to achieve - we're after a decent education for the less well off in society rather than an egalitarian utopia.

(d) Yes vouchers have started from a very low base. But they've also not had very long to work either. To stick with a system which has failed for so long in this country is madness.

(e) Who is left behind? - vouchers are available to anyone who needs them aren't they?


They could always re-introduce assisted places. It's not a great system, but at least it gives some less well-off kids the chance to get an equivalent education.

I was in favour of them being removed, but since Labour has failed to provide a decent standard of state schooling for the brighter students maybe we should reconsider...

Mark Wadsworth

Polticians are stupid.

How can education vouchers possibly be a vote loser? How can you lose votes by giving people a CHOICE?

For those who say that this will "drain the DfES of resources", OK, let's say that vouchers will be less than the average spend per State pupil (currently £5,000-odd). If you make the voucher £3,000, then the more people take them up, the more money there will be left for State schools! That's that problem fixed.

Remember that there is a generation of children whose parents are familiar with Nursery Vouchers (aka EYF, also employer's vouchers) so they know how it works. And it does work.

Now, which is the only political party that stil has school vouchers in their manifesto ...?



To quote Milton Friedman, "I would be in favour of capitalism, even if it were proven that it is less efficient economically than socialism, because of the inherent lack of freedom than socialism brings."



Yes - he's a natural rights libertarian. Not all libertarians are.

I prefer Malcolm Bradbury's quote

"If God had been a Libertarian, we wouldn't have had the Ten Commandments. We'd have had the Ten Suggestions"


Libertarians clearly should not be in favour of vouchers compared with a totally privatised system. Vouchers are, to adopt libertarian speak, simply state-sponsored theft for social engineering. Individuals are better placed to decide such matters than governments. So it will only ever be watered-down libertarians who support them.

On the subject of funding, I noted on Andrew's blog that current state spending per pupil is about the same as private school spending was in 1992 (even excluding the huge overheads LEA's apparently waste). So I wonder how do exam results between private schools then, and state schools now, compare?

Matt Munro

Perhaps I've misunderstood the concept but I thought the whole point was that vouchers would be of a fixed value equal to a year of state education, say £5000. They would be given to all parents who would be free to chose whether to cash them in for a "free" year at the local comp, or to add to them from their own funds and afford a private education (e.g if a local private school cost £7k a year, parents would give them the voucher plus a 2k top up).
It's effectively a tax refund which would subsidise the lower middle/aspirational working classes who didn't want their kids going to a sink comp but couldn't afford private education without state help. The key point is the parents exercise the choice, not the local authority through bogus and doomed attempts at "equality".

Something that everyone seems to have overlooked (or not mentioned because it's not very PC) is that parents in the most disadvantaged groups also tend to be the least interested in education, probably because they got little from it themsleves, so will not see it as a proirity for their children. It's not as simple as money or even just getting poorer kids into good schools, it's about challenging a culture of low aspiration and low acheivment.

Innocent Abroad

Well, I think you could profitably start with the 16-18 age group, because (a) you could give the voucher to the student, not the parent; and (b) the recipient could choose both between school and technical or other college (including apprenticeships), and whether to continue in F/T education or to enter the workforce for a while.

Matt Munro makes a good point, though - and the idea that there wouldn't be illegal trading in vouchers is ridiculous.


It's not really grammer versus comprehensive, it's the centralised interference, the pointless targets and the well intentioned but idiotic ideas of "Inclusion" and mixed ability teaching. As we know with the police, centralised "targets" are met by simply gaming the system, often with the law of unintended consequences. Meanwhile, those that set the targets - politicians and "educationalists" have all the power and no responsibility. The real advantage of vouchers is that they better align the incentives of parents with those of the teachers. The threat of competition is all that is needed; if a schoool wants to pay a (rare) physics teacher twice as much as a geography teacher then they can. Equally if they believe that streaming is better they can adopt it. This of course is anathema to the powerful teachers' unions who want all teachers to do the same and be paid the same (and paid more). The problem with state schools is that the customers (parents) are actually bystanders in a trade off between a politicised monopoly buyer and a monopsonistic suuplier.

john b

No, the biggest problem is people who think that *parents* are the customers.

Bishop Hill

Yes, people need to recognise that the customer is the Treasury. No 11 pays the bills; No 11 calls the shots. Sod what anyone else thinks.

el Tom

I'll have to disagree with Pomegranate. Most libertarians I've met are Nozickians, and believe that property is linked to self ownership, which is sacrosanct.

I'm not sure about these because they seem to embody the lack of relationship between work and reward which generally characterises capitalism...

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