Parents should have a real choice of school for their children

Why not give parents ‘education vouchers’ and let them send their children to whatever school they please, asks Merryn Somerset Webb.

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.

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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.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.