A cost-effective solution to inequality in education

Tom Westgarth

August 3, 2020

All governments want to leave a legacy when it comes to education policy. The introduction of free school meals in the 1944 Education Act was lauded by R.A. Butler as a demonstration of one-nation conservatism, whilst Blairites view the rolling out of Sure Start centres as a rare innovation in early-years education.

Once again, Covid-19 represents many opportunities for public policy, with education being a central component. It has the potential to be radically overhauled for good. One mechanism by which the crisis in schools could be solved is through the provision of private tutoring vouchers to those that need it most.

Some pupils will have lost up to six months of education by the time schools reopen, with many not having the home-support and digital equipment to engage with online classes. The Royal Society estimates that children could lose up to £40,000 over their lifetime as a result of lost schooling hours. The scale and variation of such losses mean that this is an issue that cannot be addressed years down the road via the tax and benefits system. Policy needs to act now, rather than later.

There was already a strong argument for tutoring vouchers prior to the pandemic. A dozen schools in London and the home counties consistently send more kids to Oxbridge than the entirety of northern England. Differences in per-pupil funding can vary by a magnitude of 3. Targeted voucher schemes could help to mitigate these fissures driving injustice within British education.

Unfortunately, many of these differences have been exacerbated by lockdown. In April, just six per cent of state secondary schools provided online lessons with their teachers, compared to 72 per cent of private secondary schools. Children shouldn’t lose out because of the circumstances that they are born into.

This matters to public policy because education is a positional good. Its value is relative to the level of education that others receive. As a result, the difference in school hours lost according to arbitrary factors such as postcode or parent’s income is a problem that the government must pay attention to.

Here, the provision of means-tested vouchers would help to close the per-pupil-funding gap. Not all children are struggling in the same way on the same subjects. Therefore, parents and pupils should be individually empowered to choose which areas of study they need the most help with. Although the £350mn national tutoring programme is a welcome start here, it doesn’t provide individuals with the same power to make choices that suit their context in the way that a voucher scheme would.

Whilst parents could decide which subjects they would spend such vouchers on, they would be non-exchangeable, so as to prevent the mass purchasing of hours by richer parents. Vouchers should also be non-refundable, to ensure that children get the same access to an improved education. This proposal helps to mitigate the mechanisms by which inequality of access to education is perpetuated, whilst also allowing parents to exercise legitimate partiality over their children.

Furthermore, one-to-one or very small class sizes will help to rebuild the confidence and wellbeing of students who have lost out on support in such important years. Many pupils were already packed into classes of over 30 and lacked the appropriate attention to help them flourish. With social-distancing measures still an issue in the coming months, those without access to wi-fi and digital equipment could be prioritised with small tutoring groups which are seen as “Covid-secure”. Tutoring vouchers could serve as a remedy to this dilemma.

An additional benefit would arise for the tutors themselves. Tutoring is often a secondary source of income for teachers, students and other workers. With incomes currently being squeezed, and the young facing a crisis in unemployment, vouchers could increase the demand for their services and help ease concerns over the cost of living.

Gavin Williamson and the education department are, like many governmental teams, facing a plethora of problems as a result of the pandemic. If they can’t implement low-cost, high-value policies like private tutoring vouchers, they will struggle to recalibrate an effective approach towards other aspects of the education system, be it universities or apprenticeships. Now is a better opportunity than ever to hit the reset button on British education and allow the market to work for society.


Written by Tom Westgarth

Tom Westgarth is an editor at Backbench. He writes about technology and economic policy.


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