Milburn calls for schools vouchers

12th June 2009 at 01:00
He tells Commons committee that credits would empower disadvantaged

The government's adviser on social mobility has called for the introduction of vouchers to give poor parents a direct choice over where their child goes to school.

Alan Milburn, a former Cabinet minister, told a Commons' schools select committee that he wanted to see "redress" with regards to children from more deprived backgrounds and give parents the power to choose a school rather than just express a preference.

"Credits" or vouchers would allow them to choose any school to the value of the money that would have been spent on their child's state education.

The Darlington MP was giving evidence as chair of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, set up by Gordon Brown to tackle social mobility issues. Mr Milburn, a former health secretary, pointed to the health system as setting an example of "redress" that education should follow.

But the voucher concept is a controversial one that has had a mixed response in parts of America where it has been introduced.

Mr Milburn said: "We need to think very hard and very radically about how we empower the most disadvantaged parents to get a direct choice over a good school.

"I have my own proposal for doing that, which is in the form of what some people call a voucher and I call an education credit.

"It would ensure kids that have some aptitude, have some ability and have got aspirational parents, that they can exercise some influence over where there kids go to school. Right now, they don't."

He added: "I know it is controversial, but my own view is that we think academic selection may have disappeared and somehow we kid ourselves that selection by social position has disappeared. It hasn't. Affluence still buys attainment."

John Bangs, the NUT's director of education, said he was "amazed" that Mr Milburn had suggested the introduction of vouchers.

"He's totally wrong to think that they should be brought in," Mr Bangs said. "What happens is that those with social and cultural capital, those with the time, the ability and the resources to search out the best schools often corrupt the intentions of the voucher system.

"Rather than encouraging schools to work together, it atomises them and brings out the worst concepts of competition in them."

But Michael Gove, shadow children's secretary, said: "Alan Milburn is right that we should be handing power from politicians to teachers and making schools more accountable to parents. The need for education reform to drive up standards for the most disadvantaged children is as urgent as ever."

The Liberal Democrats said Mr Milburn's call for vouchers did not go far enough - they want parents to have greater powers.

David Laws, the party's education spokesman, said: "Alan Milburn is right to want to give more power to parents, but this would require changes that go beyond the idea of renaming existing school funding as an education credit.

"In addition, there is a need to directly support children from more disadvantaged backgrounds through the introduction of a pupil premium, which would ensure additional funding to support the needs of disadvantaged young people.

"There will also need to be action taken to make it easier for successful schools to expand."

1950S CONCEPT

The American economist and political thinker Milton Friedman first introduced the concept of education vouchers in 1955. They have been in use since the 1980s in the United States, and their reception has been mixed.

Vouchers typically allow children (usually a select group of deprived pupils) to spend a designated amount on any non-state schooling, which usually involves co-opting much of the capacity of the existing fee-paying sector.

Last month, the Prime Minister rejected the idea of education vouchers as giving "power to a few parents, not the many" and "opportunity for some children, not excellence for all".

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