Equality is the viable alternative

School vouchers could be the start of true educational diversity, and return education to the control of parents, argues Ostap Melnick

ONE way to return control of education to parents would be for the Scottish Executive to issue families with vouchers equalling what is spent in state schools, some pound;3,000 per child per year.

Instead of being allocated a school as at present, parents would be required to choose where to spend their vouchers. In this way, true diversity in school education would develop. A campaign would be needed to educate parents in how to make effective choices.

There are a couple of snags with this idea and paradoxically the problems arise in the independent sector. Issuing vouchers would mean that parents with children in independent schools would be richer to the tune of pound;3,000 per child. While no one would grudge the money to those who scrimp and save to put their children through private school, it would be unfair if the rich became even better off.

The second problem is that, without controls, issuing vouchers would cause rampant inflation in the independent sector. As more people flocked to the existing private schools to spend their vouchers, so prices would go up as demand exceeded supply. One solution would be to change the charitable status of private schools so that they became for-profit companies. Price control regulation could then be applied in the same way as with privatised utilities.

If, at the same time, the state stopped issuing national educational standards, private schools would have only their own internal assessment criteria of which children to accept. Since no one can agree on what constitutes "true" education, more educational diversity would ensue because private schools would have no national standards against which to normalise themselves. The privileged position of private schools would soon fade away under this system.

The solution to the problem of the rich becoming richer is to means test for voucher eligibility for admission to existing private schools. With new schools, or state schools converting to the new system, eligibility would be automatic.

In the short term, implementing vouchers in this way would maintain the existing economic balance within society. But in the long term, as diversity took hold and the bell-curve distribution of academic ability disappeared when normative national standards were abolished, society would become more equal.

Therein lies another potential problem. Some analysts believe that the present education system is designed to reproduce the existing social regime, generation after generation. Under the new system, where nearly everyone becomes equal, who is going to do what are considered to be the lower socio-economic jobs? Scotland will need to become like Switzerland which, with a similar size of population, has one million immigrants.

Education alone cannot be expected to solve major societal injustices. But Scotland is moving ahead on many fronts. Changes are already afoot in housing, employment and health. Education cannot be the one area left behind.

Our education system was designed by Victorians and has over the years become more controlling. One manifestation of this is the current accreditation hysteria that is afflicting Scottish education. The idea that examinations are central to a disciplinary society will not seem strange to anyone who has read Michel Foucault, especially his Discipline and Punish.

As educational alternatives become publicised, more and more people will refuse to participate in a coercive system in which they have no say. They will increasingly decline to have experts judge what is best for them and their families.

Ostap Melnick is a chartered engineer in Glasgow. His school-age daughter does not go to school but is educated at home and in the community.

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