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If we want more and better we must pay

Twenty-five years ago, I co-edited a book grandly titled The Condition of English Schooling. One contributor, an Open University lecturer, proposed that we should reduce the secondary school week, shrink the curriculum to "core" material, and allow children and parents to shop among private providers for extras.

These could include maths (remedial or advanced) and additional foreign languages, but also subjects that schools don't offer at all - from ballroom dancing to black studies. My contributor was particularly keen on gardening, a subject that had been common in schools until the 1940s.

My contributor proposed this scheme because, he thought, it was wrong to confine a child's education to one "total" institution. Either the institution became too big or children became frustrated because it did not offer their preferred subjects. Naturally, parents would be charged for the extras but my contributor promised "some assistance" for "the really poor".

This essay was published when Peter Mandelson was an obscure Lambeth councillor and Tony Blair a struggling lawyer. It strikes me now as an early example of what is these days called triangulation, marrying traditional education with the de-schooling movement, the private with the maintained sector and left-wing with right-wing ideas.

If Mr Blair sends me a postal order to cover expenses I will provide him with a copy, being anxious now, as I was then, to encourage the free flow of ideas.

Certainly, my contributor would now be in tune with the times. The buzzword is "co-payment". It has so far had only a handful of tentative public outings, notably in a little reported speech by Mr Blair last month.

The idea is that we cannot continue to finance public services solely from taxation and must raise more money from their users. Hotel charges for hospital beds or for a whole day nursery school have been mentioned.

Anthony Seldon, head of Brighton college, has proposed that three-quarters of our children should attend "partnership schools". These would make modest, means-tested charges to parents. Otherwise, there is little detail about what co-payment might mean.

Yet it is long established in dentistry, NHS prescriptions and council leisure centres. Nearly all schools in well-off areas now raise a significant proportion of their money from parental fundraising and even a termly contribution. University fees are another form of co-payment.

An increasingly affluent society expects ever higher standards of public service, but seems reluctant to pay. Governments usually shy away from the problems so that we get either creeping privatisation or botched temporary solutions.

Inadequate finance has driven dentists into the private sector.

Universities struggled on with drastically reduced resources per student.

Now, after the muddled student loans scheme , we have the graduate tax (or a version of it).

In schools, nobody seems to notice that parental fundraising and contributions have opened a gigantic gap between schools in affluent areas and those in poor ones. And increasingly parents supplement what schools provide with privately-purchased coaching.

I am deeply suspicious of anything that further erodes the public sector.

But I would rather have its future properly debated than see it continue to decline.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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