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You cannot bank on education

When budgets are tight, thoughts always turn to how the shrinking cake of education spending is to be distributed, as Don Ledingham demonstrated in his column last week. The real challenge for all in education is to fight to maintain levels of investment in education - not to agonise over how to share out the crumbs.

A "flexible learning credit", as described by Mr Ledingham, sounds a much less objectionable term, but the proposal is really for a voucher scheme by any other name. The effect is to introduce a market in education where the pupil acts as a consumer, choosing where to buy discrete packages of learning.

But which pupils should have access? How and by whom would it be decided which learning packages are to be made available? And could a student choose to spend the whole credit on one (very expensive) course, thereby narrowing unacceptably his or her range of learning?

At a practical level, students in a sparsely-populated country like Scotland would have limited ability to buy learning packages elsewhere. For those who could, issues such as transport costs would disadvantage poorer students. This proposal increases the risk of social exclusion and stratification of schools.

Any significant uptake would militate against the capacity of public authorities to plan appropriate provision of their school estate and of their staffing. Such instability is damaging to all. Further, in enhancing the right of certain individuals to choose in this way, the rights of others to choose are diminished - if, for example, an Advanced Higher in a community school becomes unviable since six out of 10 students have decided to take their "custom" elsewhere.

A focus on the individual merely as a consumer of learning also undermines the concept of the student as part of a school community - a place which generates social, cultural, sporting activity and relationships, as well as certificated learning. This narrows and impoverishes the whole-school experience.

And where's the evidence that this would "improve the educational outcomes for children"? Consider what happened when we deregulated school meals and introduced a quasi-market of free choice in school catering. Few would argue that it improved the dietary or health outcomes for our children.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland.

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