England’s missing children – how school vouchers could reform our education system

Reem Ibrahim

June 20, 2022

This month, the children’s commissioner Rachel de Souza released her report into England’s ‘missing children’ – those who have fallen through the gaps of our education system. Unfortunately, the number of these missing children have soared in the wake of the pandemic, with pupils with special educational needs (SEN) among those being let down in England’s schools.In fact, children with SENs or an Education Healthcare Plan (EHC) have a persistent absence rate that is more than double those without an identified SEN. Two years of disrupted learning has only exacerbated this issue, with SEN children being disproportionately affected by the lockdown. It is, therefore, welcome news that the government has acknowledged that things need to change. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced plans to train 5,000 more early-years teachers to be SEN co-ordinators, aiming to:“give confidence to families across the country that from very early on in their child’s journey through education, whatever their level of need, their local school will be equipped to offer a tailored and high-quality level of support”.But throwing more taxpayer money at a centralised education system – one that restricts families in the choices that they make – is ineffectual. The current “one-size-fits-all” model assumes that every child learns in the same way, meaning that children with SENs are not adequately taught. By contrast, giving parents greater choice over where they send their children would encourage greater specialisation in learning techniques, meaning that education would truly become “tailored and high-quality”. A system of school vouchers through a public-private partnership would ensure that every family in the UK could choose for themselves where, and by extension, how, their children are educated.Under such a system, the government would allocate a voucher to families, so that they are free to make the decision on where to send their children themselves. Parents would then have the option to top-up these vouchers if they deem this to be financially feasible, giving them the freedom to choose how their child is educated, whilst also ensuring that no one goes without an education. School vouchers are not a novel idea –  they are based on Milton Friedman’s arguments for greater freedom of choice, as he set out in his classic 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom”. A number of these market oriented reforms have been implemented based on Friedman’s fundamental belief that governments should fund schools, but not administer them.This school voucher system would give families greater freedom of choice. This means scrapping the current “one-size-fits-all” model, which does not cater to anyone’s learning needs adequately, and is an especially poor system for those with SENs. Parents know their children’s learning needs the best, and so a system of educational freedom would allow families to make educational choices specific to their child. It also opens up the education market, allowing for schools to specialise in particular learning methods and styles. Just as a blanket insurance plan would not cater to every insurance need, and individual consumers choose insurance plans based on their specific needs, families should have the freedom to choose what works for them. A voucher system hands parents the power to demand what works for their child.Furthermore, a voucher system means that teachers are directly accountable to parents, giving schools strong incentives to meet the needs of their students. Just like any other consumer, an unsatisfied family can take their voucher money elsewhere. If a child with SEN is not being adequately taught at one school, families are able to simply move to another. This puts competitive pressure on schools, increasing the overall quality of education. Research has shown that student performance in both Milwaukee and Florida improved following the launch of school choice opportunities for this reason. Competition drives up both quality and choice-  and education is no exception.

Author

Written by Reem Ibrahim

Reem Ibrahim is a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute.

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