A case for education reform

Education today is largely administered and funded by the central government, however, this doesn’t have to be the case. Independent (private) schools have consistently out-performed state schools for decades – yet for many lower-income families, the choice to send their children to the former isn’t feasible. This has led to a great disparity in education levels and thus inequality in job opportunities between the students of each school. Whilst grammar schools have to some extent helped in promoting intergenerational mobility, by providing opportunities for success for those from lower-income backgrounds, a voucher system would more efficiently promote this, insofar as giving parents the choice to choose between state and independent schools.

State Schools

Schools for ordinary citizens were first introduced by the Church of England in the 19th century, with the beginning of the so-called ‘National Society’ in 1811. Initially, as the schools were affiliated with the Church of England, the curriculum was largely religious orientated. Over the coming decades, the number of these schools grew, with access to elementary education rising from 58% in 1816 to 83% in 1835.

However, the government began to take over these schools following the passage of the Education Act in 1902. This led to both ‘church’ schools and grammar schools coming under the control of the newly formed LEAs (Local Education Authorities). These authorities instituted an overhaul of the previous, largely religious curriculum, mandating a 4-year subject-based course, with the course material itself determined by the respective schools and teachers. In 1944, state schools were made completely free at the point of use, with primary and secondary schools established. During the 1980s, the Education Reform Act was passed, introducing a national, standardised curriculum for all schools. GCSEs were introduced, thereby leading to league tables that published the highest performing schools.

Whilst state schools intended to provide high-quality education, funded through taxation, the outcome has been far from so. Not one state school has made the top 10 rankings for either GCSE or A-Level results over the past 10 years. As with all government-run institutions, the results are lacklustre.

Grammar Schools

As with state schools, grammar schools are funded through taxes. However, unlike the former, they are selective in the students they choose to admit. Although grammar schools had existed since the 14 century, this system of tax-payer funded selective schools came with the tripartite system, established in 1944. Through this, entry into these grammar schools was from then forth, based on the Scholarship Exam (11+ exam).

As grammar schools are selective in nature, they have been successful in creating some social mobility, allowing for the brightest students to succeed – regardless of their background. In this way, grammar schools have allowed students from poorer backgrounds to climb the social ladder. Examples of this are former British Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major.

Unfortunately, there are less than 170 selective grammar schools in Britain today, with Margaret Thatcher closing most grammar schools as education secretary, in the early 1970s. Although she later regretted this in her memoirs, such poor decision making and enthusiasm towards comprehensive schools has deprived children of upward social mobility. It is thus unsurprising that upward social mobility has been on the decline since the 1980s – the decade following the closure of most grammar schools.

Number of grammar schools: 1947-2015

A Voucher System

The solution to this crisis is a voucher system for schools. Whilst grammar schools have been effective in promoting social mobility, there are many overlapping issues with grammar and state schools alike – the most notable being that of a lack of quality education. As aforementioned, independent schools vastly outperform state schools, however the same is true for most grammar schools; only 5 grammar schools made the top 50 rankings for average A-Level points in 2021 – with independent (private) schools comprising the rest of the list. Ensuring that those from low incomes have access to these independent schools is a must, with a voucher system achieving just that, incentivising the creation of more schools of higher education standards in the process.

Currently, those who choose to send their children to a private school, are still subject to taxes that go towards education. As of 2021, spending per pupil is £5,000. This results in parents who send their children to objectively higher-achieving schools, being £5,000 worse financially. In this way, the government incentivises parents to choose worse schools for their children, by not exempting those who choose to send their children to independent schools, from the £5,000 spending per pupil premium. School vouchers nullify this problem, giving each family a £5,000 school voucher which they can use to send their child to a state or independent of their choice, without punishing those who opt for independent schools.

A voucher system forces state schools to compete with independent schools, thus ensuring that they maintain high educational standards, in order to be the recipient of said vouchers. Under such a system, a vast market of independent schools will emerge, as investors compete to provide the highest educational standards. School vouchers give the customer more choice when determining which school to send their children to, as more schools inevitably emerge under such a system.

School vouchers have been tried in other nations. In 1992, Sweden introduced a system of school vouchers. What followed was an improvement in educational standards across the board – in both public and privately-run schools, due to the increased competition between the two. A 2004 study concluded that due to said increase in competition, school results in public schools had improved. Such increases in educational standards continued, as in 2015, Sweden ranked higher than the UK in both reading and maths.

Thus, the effectiveness of a school voucher system in inducing competition and innovation in the educational system is clear. Whilst currently, only the upper classes have freedom of choice when it comes to choosing schools, a voucher system would ensure that these opportunities are there for everyone – regardless of income.