Parents should have a real choice of school for their children

If you have a child in the UK between three years old and school age, the state pays for them to have up to 15 hours of nursery care a week for up to 38 weeks a year.

This is good for parents (a nice break for those who don’t work, and a small respite from childcare costs for those who do), but the most interesting thing about it is the way the funding works. You can send your child to any nursery you like, state or private, and still get the funding. Go state and you need pay no extra; go private and there is generally a top up.

This works brilliantly. Parents generally get to choose the nursery they like, and can top up hours or move the children – with their funding attached – as they like.

So here’s the question: if we are prepared to give parents choice and funding for pre-school education, why is there no political impetus at all for doing it at primary and secondary level?

Giving parents access to their child’s share of the educational budget via a ‘virtual voucher’ of some kind (as in Sweden) and allowing them to place their children where they like would open independent-standard education to scores more people: the average state-funding per pupil is around £5,200, the cost of a year at the excellent Heriots in Edinburgh is around £8,000.

It would force rubbish schools across the spectrum to either raise their game or close. And it might help raise standards everywhere to the extent that a mere ten (independent) schools no longer account for 12% of the UK’s elite.

As Douglas Carswell MP wrote his this week “If state officials are unable to provide parents with a school place that they are happy to accept, why not let folk take their money and give it to a school that can?” 

There is school of thought that thinks this will be no more than a subsidy for the rich – vouchers they can take to existing private schools just get their kids the same education at less cost. But this is to miss the point.

It might be nice for the well off to have to pay less out of their taxed income for their school fees. But first, note that it is taxed income. And second, rather than getting bogged down in the usual class warfare that any discussion of education in the UK seems to bring on, we should all recognise that the main point here is not to penalise those who can already afford a good education for their children, but to try and make sure that everyone gets a good education whatever their parents’ income level.

After all, if we were all happy with the standard of the state schools our children get to go to, the independent sector would barely exist in the first place. You can read more on the benefits of choice and vouchers here and here.

  • Boris MacDonut

    I’d prefer to see Grammar schools return and Privtae schools taxed properly, not as charities.
    Quoting Heriots is fake. That is a cheap place. The independent schools website gives fees ranging from £9,000 to £30,000pa for toff schools. The average is over£15,000. I understand 7% of our kids are sent to these proving grounds for toffs. If that money was shared out fairly the other 93% could have a 17% increase in annual funding.

  • Shinsei1967

    Whether or not private schools deserve charitable tax-status is a moot point but the actual sums involved are pretty trivial. The tax saving is £100m per year, or about £225 per pupil. Seeing as average day school fees are £10,000 this isn’t a sum that will make much difference.

    The interesting point about Heriots is that Edinburgh has the highest percentage of private school pupils of an city in the UK. And although there are schools like Fettes that charge £30k pa there are many more that offer an “easyjet” Heriots education for £8k.

    And Boris, how does “sharing out” the £30k that Mr & Mrs X spend on their kids education actually work ? What other expenditure people make would you like shared out too ?

  • md

    Good idea, I remember a similiar idea in a Yes minister episode. Sir Humphrey didn’t like it so it didn’t go ahead.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #2 Shinsei. Did I say “I would like”? I thought I wrote “If”. I’m quite happy for class addled toffs to waste their money on an educational security blanket as long as the rest of us get a fair shout.

  • Ellen

    Yes. Its a political hot potato. Two of the biggest influence on how well a child’s will do in school is who they share a classroom with and what the parents/ teachers expectations are of the child. Some children start their lives with the odds completely stacked against them because of poverty, disinterested parents or low expectations.

    Parents who put their children at the centre of their world may wish to keep their kids with like minded families and children. They are good parents who want the best for their children but this would mean avoiding the unfortunate kids with disinterested parents and low expectations. I really don’t think parents should be helped to do this.

  • Andrew H

    @Ellen, 5

    By the same token they have no right to be punished either, fiscally or otherwise.

  • Andrew H

    *EDIT * I meant to say “…nobody has the right to punish them…”

  • Andrew H

    @Ellen, 5,

    What happened to freedom of association? You are arguing for freedom of association with a price tag attached.

  • Ellen

    @ Andrew, It isn’t really about money. There are highly involved and disinterested parents at every level of the social spectrum. I think, the able and intelligent products of bad parenting benefit from the vision of classmates with good parents – even if it is second hand. And parents of these parents will positively effect the standard of expectation inside the classroom just by keeping a close eye on what goes on.

    Adults are free to make their own decisions regardless of what their background is but children are at the mercy of other people’s decisions. I know you don’t agree but, there you go, I think society should step in sometimes.

  • Robbie

    Alternatively why not allow private schools to opt-in as academies to the state sector and have most of their teaching staff paid by the state with a top-up fee for extra staff to allow fo smaller class sizes and extra-curricular activity. This is similar to how private schools operate in France with typical fees of about £600 per year.

  • Robbie

    Alternatively why not allow private schools to opt-in as academies to the state sector and have most of their teaching staff paid by the state with a top-up fee for extra staff to allow fo smaller class sizes and extra-curricular activity. This is similar to how private schools operate in France with typical fees of about £600 per year.

  • Andrew H

    @Ellen, 9

    That doesn’t make sense, no parent with an interest in educating their children would put up with them being upset by aggressive and disruptive class mates, even less so if they were sent a bill every month for the service.

    Let’s also make clear that those that pay for private education (including those that home school their children, about 2% when extrapolating US figures) still also have to pay the same rates of tax, there’s no rebate for educating your own child, and school fees are not tax deductible.

    And you are saying that if parents want to get together and raise money as a donation for better equipment, or to fund scholarships for gifted childre, etc. to a private school, they should pay additional tax on that too?

  • MartinR

    Brilliant article and brilliant idea.
    But it will never happen. Because of this: “It would force rubbish schools across the spectrum to either raise their game or close.”

    Andrew, 9 made very good points either.

  • Colin Selig-Smith


    You misunderstand the purpose of state schools. Schooling is not education. Schools exist to babysit children and provide low cost sorting and grading services to the establishment. “Improving” this might produce a generation of children with critical thinking skills asking awkward questions and who might force social and political change. Not something the establishment favours.

  • Ellen

    Andrew, why do you assume neglected children are aggressive and disruptive?

    Where have I suggested people who send their children at extra tax?
    A state education is available for their children but the parent have chosen not to avail of the service. How are they being taxed extra?

  • Boris MacDonut

    12 Andrew. Ellen #15 is correct. The state provides and the toffs opt out, their choice. You could equally say the state provides a pension ,but those who provide for a private pension pay the same tax. The state provides hospitals ,but those who go private pay the same tax. The state provides police ,but those who employ bodyguards pay the same tax. The state provides roads but those who buy lear jets still have to pay. So what?

  • Ellen

    Thank you Boris. It is not often we find common ground! I would go a step further. suggesting there should be a tax rebate for those who use private schools should entitle people with no children the same rebate . Under 65s could claim a health rebate on the grounds that it is a service they rarely use. We could have a very long list if everyone asked to only pay for their usage and claimed no social responsibility.

    I think Andrew’s fortress mentality of what amounts to segregation between perceived ‘nice’ kids and ‘bad’ kids is really disheartening.

  • Romford Dave

    The article has more to do with the merits of giving parents a choice rather than the more wearisome toffs versus chav’s argument some of the comments are seemingly taking.

    Most parents have very little interest in the high/low life at either end of the social spectrum, despite the copious amount of column inches devoted to it.

    The question is simple.

    Can parents be trusted enough to be given a choice, even though such a choice would probably be made in the interests of their own individual offspring rather than the interests of society as a whole?

    Probably, unless you aspire to a society of Zhongshan suit wearers.

    However whether fistfuls of money chasing a limited number of good educational places can deliver such excellence is questionable given the irrationally exuberant history of markets generally, free or otherwise.

    The question may be simple, the answer is far from it.

  • Andrew H

    @Ellen, 15

    Sadly it happens, I went to a school where there were a few very unhappy children, and they were very disruptive as well as requiring an awful lot of time and attention from teaching staff, that couldn’t otherwise be directed towards students that did wish to learn.

    Your other statement doesn’t make sense, ask yourself what business is able to arbitrarily charge people for service they didn’t ask for, or make use of? The legal definiti0n of this is extortion.

    Please explain why it’s ok for someone who claims to work for the state to get away with extortion, whilst at the same time being able to prosecute you if you attempt the same thing?

    People might have more respect for the law if it applied to those that also make them.

  • Andrew H


    p.s. A majority of box ticks in a general election does not abrogate people of their responsibility under the law either.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #19. Andrew H. Now I see why you are so horribly confused. Why you mount irrational arguments and why most of what you say is so wide of the mark. You think the State is a business.
    I fear this is a mistake a number of Tory types have made in the past to the detriment of nearly everyone else.
    The State’s role is to protect it’s citizens and defend a civilised standard of living, not to make a profit.
    Andrew ,stop peering at the world through a wallet.

  • Andrew H

    You didn’t answer the question Boris.

    Explain why you or I are liable for the crime of extortion, and yet not for someone who claims to represent the government?

  • Andrew H


    Explain why the state demanding money is not extortion?

  • Boris MacDonut

    #22 &23 Andrew. I think if you struggle with the difference between a social contract and the unlawful obtaining of money through coercion, then you ought not to be offering comments for public consumption. That sort of hole in knowlwedge tends to detract credibility from what one mentions.

  • Andrew H

    @24, Boris,

    I’m glad to see that you admit that the government takes money through coercion.

    Is there a clause in this illusory contract of yours that says one set of laws applies to one group of people, and not to another (it sounds a little like apartheid but for the benefit of a much smaller eilte)?

    I’ve not seen copy, nor was I asked if I wanted to sign one, so I’m hoping you could locate the clause for me?

  • Boris MacDonut

    #25 Andrew. You misunderstand…..again…….deliberately. How tiresome. Where did I say government? Where did I say the social contract was coercive?
    You can easily, effectively, refuse to sign the social contract. Everyone who dislikes it is free to leave the country and put their trust in another nation’s legal and political system. There are 215 others to choose from Andrew.
    Your Mrs Thatcher liked the idea of choice.

  • Andrew H

    @Boris, 26,

    You said there’s a difference between unlawfully obtaining money through force or threats, and the social contract, which you believe sanctions the government to do exactly that.

    I’m just wondering what clause that’s in? I’ve never seen this document, or how this abrogates responsibility under common law.

    I didn’t realise it applied selectively, and those that abided by common law were obliged to leave the country?

  • Andrew H


    What else can you do whilst waving around this social contract of yours?

  • Ellen

    @Romford Dave. Neglect is far more common than you seem to think, although I suppose how neglect is defined might change the numbers. My definition of a neglected child is a child who does not have the support of an adult who has a big interest in their well being. Very any adults are so wrapped up in their own needs, they are unable to provide this. This is nothing to do with Chavs or toffs. It’s about attempting to achieve equality.
    Andrew, I don’t understand why you blame under privileged kids for you tax bill. And I am sorry you were bullied in school. Bullies don’t always come from the ranks of the under privileged. You just have to look at the front bench in parliament to see that,

  • Boris MacDonut

    #27 Andrew. Well I see HMRC had 360 folk convicted last year, that is fewer than 1 in 150,000 taxpayers. Barely a quarter of those received jail sentences. You construct an argument for coercion on very thin evidence.
    Again you only read what you wish to hear. I said you had the option of leaving, not that you had to go. Do your libertarian instincts stretch to preventing speed limits or allowing drug dealers back onto the streets because you feel the state has no right to intervene?

  • Andrew H

    @29, Ellen,

    The allusions to class by both yourself and Boris are of your making, not mine.

    I’m pointing you if you mix children who enjoy academia with those that don’t, teachers can waste an awful lot of time trying to help those who have no interest.

    The children are wasting their time, the teachers are wasting their time, and the kids that do want to learn don’t have the necessary time from the teacher.

    It doesn’t create a microcosm of socialist paradise that you and Boris allude to, rather an awful lot of wasted effort for everybody concerned (frustrated teachers, unhappy children who don’t enjoy the curriculum are made to feel worse, children who do held back and disrupted by the unhappy kids with too much time on their hands), although this is what the state seems to exist to do nowadays, and then charge double for those who would rather pay for an alternative.

  • Andrew H

    @Boris, 30

    I think you’ve rather undermined your own argument their Boris…

    Given your logic, one could make the perverse conclusion that extortion isn’t a crime because less than x number (pick any abitrary number you wish) were prosecuted last year.

  • Ellen

    Andrew, you keep making the assumption that the children of people who can’t be bothered finding out the calibre of school they attend are disruptive and lack ambition. It’s a huge and incorrect generalisation. What some lack is direction because nobody has a vested enough interest in directing them. That will not be addressed by filling up the best schools with children who are lucky enough to have an adult to fight their corner leaving them in the care of people who don’t expect results from them. I regard myself as a fully invested parent and if there is something I do or my children do to help any child in there school, how can that be bad?

  • Andrew H

    @Ellen, 33

    There are two issues and you are confusing them, bad parents, and children unhappy at school.

    State education won’t solve the issue of bad parents, and state education that doesn’t work for those subjected to it (parents and children alike).

    I still don’t get why you are arguing for more, and for good parents to be penalised for seeking to the best for their children.

    I think your interest in neglected children is laudible, but there are far better ways of helping neglected children than by insisting that the clumsy hand of the state is a panacea (foster parenting, children’s charities, helping a child directly).

  • Andrew H


    I think you and Boris need to ask yourselves why you believe that certain areas of state spending are sacrosanct.

    A person is not stealing because they would rather not be charged for the services offered by the state that they seek from other providers.

    The government’s spending problem is of their making and due to their incompetence, not ours, we do not exist to fill the gap in the treasury’s coffers, and I think you forget who serves who.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #32 Andrew .You really are the limit. I do not accept that state taxation is extortion. There are 92,000 in prison, only about 300 for tax reasons.
    #35 Andrew .Your arguments make no sense. There are slow and fast cars on roads. Your argument would have the slow cars removed to make the Jermey Clarksons less stressed. Troubl;e is the Jermey Clarksons could and should fund their own roads, like they do their own toff schools .

  • Critic Al Rick

    @ 14. Colin

    My sentiments exactly.

    A well used expression of mine is:
    “Anything provided by Government (National & Local) is rubbish (as far as the genuine general interests of the majority is concerned).”

    @ 21. Boris

    More’s the pity the UK Govt doesn’t run the country as a virtual single business (in the best long term interests of the majority of its ‘shareholders’)…

    Not bankrupt?

    It would appear a country can be continued to be run in an irrational fashion long after the irrationality has caused it to become insolvent. It does this by pillaging wealth from solvent ‘shareholders’ …

    Watch as the provided services become more and more totalitarian…

  • Boris MacDonut

    #37 Yikes. Anyone else notice how Rick’s disappearance and return coincided exactly with the imprisonment and subsequent premature release of Chris Huhne? Surely not……..

  • NeutronWarp9

    ”It would force rubbish schools across the spectrum to either raise their game or close. ” A let them eat cake, moment I think.
    Perhaps under-performing schools operate all too frequently in disadvantaged areas?
    At its simplest, there has to be various shades of ‘under-class’ for there to be an ‘elite’; just as there must be ‘have-nots’ for there to be ‘haves’.
    The argument for both the NHS and a state education system in the first place was to establish universality (however imperfectly applied) and yet in reality they can only ever ensure a minimun standard.
    Surely going private ensures a greater chance of success and sometimes that is at the expense of others who do not have access to the same resources. Some call it Darwinism.

  • Romford Dave

    Made me chuckle 🙂

  • Colin Selig-Smith

    @ 37. Critic Al Rick

    I was being mildly facetious, however the modern school system was invented by the Germans and implemented nationally by the Americans, we’ve inherited it from there. It actually isn’t really designed to educate at all.

    For example a typical class has dozens of children, 30 on a good day and lasts for 40 minutes to an hour. before they are all whisked off to something entirely unrelated, and this happens up to 8 times per day. That’s 120 seconds of attention per subject per child per day on average.

    It reminds me of Jamie Oliver’s 38 pence school dinners.

  • Critic Al Rick

    Not quite Boris; but amusing nontheless.

    Surely the absence of a lampooning by you of my comments is not evidence of total agreement; what?

    @ 41. Colin

    IMO it was primarily designed to indoctrinate. And I’m not being facetious, not even mildly!

    Please don’t ever neglect exercising your very important democratic right…

  • Deccan

    Is it really being proposed that parents who avail of private education get tax breaks? Not far enough? What about if you disagree profoundly with a government decision to, say, invade Iraq, that you withhold tax to the tune of whatever the military budget is as a proportion of the total tax take. Deduct the same proportion from your tax bill. I seriously considered this but knew that a criminal record would likely see me lose my job. The point is this: do we opt in or out of society?

  • Gegenschein68

    Average state funding per pupil is £5200. 615,000 children attend independent schools (wiki). If, for each of these children, £5200 was rebated in the form of a voucher this would cost £3.2 billion. The £5200 average spend per pupil has already been spent.

    In a civilised society you pay taxes and the state provides services. If you don’t want or don’t need those services you don’t get a rebate.

    In a way, the article is an argument for increased public spending, the hope being that ‘everyone gets a good education whatever their parents’ income level.’. Quite how taking £3.2 billion from the current budget will help those without the resources to choose to get a better education for their kids is a mystery.

  • Michael Gove

    The article never mentioned anything about rebates, that particular red herring was a misuse in subsequent comments of the point the first couple of posters made regarding the charitable status certain schools enjoy.

    It doesn’t mention taking £3.2 billion out of the current budget either, just giving the option to parents as to which school they choose to hand over their £3.2 billion of vouchers.

    Other than that you’re spot on.

    Apart from the bit about taxes and civilised societies – taxes are paid in uncivilised societies too…

    Must try harder???

  • Boris MacDonut

    #45 M Gove. The article does not mention uncivilised societies.

  • Michael Gove

    Nor fishing, yet a herring crops up in my opening sentence…

    What colour is herring?

    A. Red
    B. Herring isn’t a colour
    C. None of the above


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