A short flight for Skidelsky's kite

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Rumours about the imminent death of free state education appear to have been exaggerated.

Both the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary moved quickly to scotch the story in last Thursday's Guardian that John Major's advisers were "considering proposals" to introduce vouchers to cover the period of compulsory education.

In the Commons, Mr Major told MPs the story was "without foundation" and "certainly inaccurate", while Mrs Shephard told a grant-maintained schools conference in Birmingham: "No proposals are being considered by any part of government to introduce education vouchers for five to 16-year-olds." To make herself absolutely clear, she added: "The idea that there is any possibility that we would end free state education is complete rubbish."

It all depends what you mean by "consider". If the Prime Minister (or, more precisely, his education adviser Nicholas True) reads a proposal on education funding sent to him by a distinguished Conservative peer, is he "considering" it? In a sense, yes. But is the Government considering implementing it? Almost certainly not.

As Lord Skidelsky, the peer in question, remarks: "The Government is very nervous about new ideas because of fear of the press, which is partly justified . . . This is unfortunate because it stops debate and puts people like me under pressure not to open up a subject."

So what are his proposals, as set out to a conference organised by the Centre for Policy Studies last week? Their essential purpose, he says, is to get more money into the state education service by allowing parents to top up existing per capita spending. He sets his face against the only alternative, which would be to raise taxes.

Schools would be given the statutory right to charge fees, which would be set at a higher level than current spending - at, say Pounds 3,000 for a secondary place, Pounds 500 more than the local authority average. Parents would make up the difference.

The voucher idea is secondary to that basic concept of a top-up mechanism, says Lord Skidelsky. The per capita funding could go either direct to schools, through the local education authority or Funding Agency for Schools, or to parents via a voucher.

Children of parents on low incomes would continue to receive a completely free education, either by giving schools in inner-city areas a higher per capita sum or, if vouchers were introduced, by giving poor parents a weighted voucher.

Lord Skidelsky's proposals cover only the statutory age range. He does not want to get involved in the debate over vouchers for nursery education.

To those who dismiss his scheme as "crackpot", he replies that they must then say how they would get more money into the education system. He says the only alternative to introducing more private money is higher taxation.

"There is a strict limit to what you can do by squeezing more value out of the current funding, which is what the Government is trying to do," he says.

He would not be drawn on the reception his proposals had received at Number 10 Downing Street, nor on whether the Social Market Foundation, which he chairs, had been invited to submit ideas for the next Conservative manifesto. He pointed out, however, that he would be happy for any party to take up his ideas.

He did not think the Prime Minister's commitment to five years of peace and stability in education should rule out such radical changes.

"John Major's promises about peace aren't worth anything," he said. "If we can't get a decent education system out of the existing levels of funding, we're not going to get peace."

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