At the Labour party conference, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner announced that a Labour government would abolish private schools. The policy was met with rapturous applause by those on the left who believe that this will help to facilitate social mobility.
The announcement was seen by many Conservatives as an opportunity to push their pet policy: bringing back grammar schools. They were misty-eyed as they related tales of those halcyon days of the 11-plus exam and how they believed it helped to tackle inequality.
Both sides are right to take the issue of education seriously. A person’s life chances in the UK are largely determined by where they grew up and the type of school they went to.
I was fortunate enough to attend a good state comprehensive school where the majority of teachers were dedicated and supportive. Perhaps even more importantly, I had a stable home life with a supportive family. As a result, my brother and I were the first generation in our family to attend university.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for lots of children. They have no choice but to attend substandard schools, which makes it harder for them to get the necessary grades to go to university or to enter the professions. Conversely, the children of wealthy parents are able to attend the very best schools.
They receive a first-class education, which enables them to gain entry to the most prestigious universities and then embark on the most financially rewarding careers. It’s clear that our current education system is entrenching inequality.
However, although both sides of the debate are right to be concerned, the solutions which they offer are wrong.
It is unclear what Labour’s policy would actually achieve apart from putting extra pressure on an already strained education system. The thousands of previously privately educated children will have to be accommodated by the state sector, meaning larger class sizes and extra work for teachers.
Alternatively, there would be nothing stopping wealthy parents from hiring tutors for their children or packing them off to foreign boarding schools. There is also a troubling authoritarian element in the state closing down schools and curtailing the rights of parents to educate their children as they see fit.
Grammar schools form part of an equally misguided policy. Although there is evidence that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and future earnings of those who get in, there is equally good evidence to show that those in selective areas who don’t pass the 11-plus do worse than they would have done in a comprehensive system.
For example, research shows that earnings inequalities are wider for children born in selective areas during the 1960s and 1970s compared with those born in comprehensive areas. This comes from a combination of higher wages at the top of the distribution for individuals who grew up in selective areas and lower wages at the bottom.
More recent evidence comes from the expansion of grammar schools in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. This did raise average attainment over Northern Ireland as a whole, with a ten per cent increase in the number of pupils getting three or more A-levels, driven mainly by improved performance among those newly able to go to grammar schools. However, the reform also widened educational inequalities with a decline in the performance of pupils not able to go to grammar schools.
Thankfully, the free market offers a solution. One which is proven to improve educational attainment for all children, regardless of their background or where they live: school vouchers.
A voucher system would involve the government giving an education voucher to parents with school-aged children. This voucher would have a cash value to be used by the parents on their child’s education. It could be used towards the fees at a private school.
Parents would be permitted to top up these vouchers to enable them to send their children to any school, including those which charge more than the value of the state funding. This would create a marketplace in school provision that offered a continuum ranging from those requiring only the state voucher through to the most elite independent schools charging a significant top-up fee.
School vouchers have been implemented in various countries around the world and there is a great deal of evidence which suggests they would help to improve the quality of education in the UK for all children.
In Sweden, for example, such a system has been in place since 1992. Research has shown that the voucher system had a positive impact on the system overall thanks to increased competition.
Then there is Chile. They introduced vouchers in the 1980s and it led to a dramatic increase in the number of children attending private schools. What’s more, it improved standards across the board, increased college attendance, and had a positive impact on wages.
These are just two examples. Numerous states in the US, as well as other countries, have implemented voucher systems and have seen standards improve.
Markets work everywhere, including in education. That is why I was pleased to see that 1828 and the Adam Smith Institute have included a section on choice in education in their Neoliberal Manifesto.
Education is vitally important and so it is crucial that we get it right. If we want to live in a country where every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential, we need innovative solutions. And closing down private schools or bringing back grammars isn’t going to improve education – we should introduce a voucher system instead.