There are those who believe that some things, such as healthcare or the road network, are just too important to leave in the hands of the market. And there are those who believe that some things, such as food or petrol, are just too important to leave in the hands of government.
Neither side can be happy with the British school system. The state sector dominates, but quality is patchy and any pretence of egalitarianism is punctured by the many ways in which money can buy an advantage: private school, extra tuition, expensive houses in the right catchment area … Worse, none of this money goes to benefit the state-school system.
Is there a better way? One could, of course, try to negate the advantage that cash brings: this was presumably the philosophy behind Brighton and Hove’s decision in 2007 to allocate school places by lottery rather than proximity. Or more radically, we could nationalise Eton and criminalise after-hours maths tuition.
A more appealing alternative is to let the pendulum swing the other way, and privatise a large slice of the state school sector. Anyone who meets government standards could set up a school, and they could charge whatever they wanted to and make a profit if they could. This idea would embrace the willingness of many parents to spend time and money trying to obtain a good education for their kids.
We couldn’t allow the children of poor families to be cast adrift in a commercialised education system, and there are two things we could easily do to prevent that. The first is to give every family an education voucher for, say, £6,000, redeemable at any school. Poor families could get more; the current “pupil premium” for poorer children is £600, so we could add that sum, or more, to the voucher.
The second is that the government could continue to run schools, charging a fee equivalent to the voucher. Families who want exactly what they’re getting now – education both funded and provided by the government – could have it.
What possible objections could there be to this idea? Let’s consider a few. The first is that some parents couldn’t or wouldn’t spend their vouchers carefully, and their child would fall further behind her more fortunate peers. This is a risk – but competition is a powerful force, even if not everybody plays the game. People who do not bother to check prices at supermarkets will still benefit because more price-sensitive people are keeping the supermarkets honest. Similarly, schools must raise standards to attract pupils, even if not everyone responds to the improvement.
The second concern is that schools will sometimes go bankrupt, and this will cause disruption. I have two words in response: Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina devastated New Orleans, many children ended up at better schools elsewhere. A study by the economist Bruce Sacerdote revealed that despite months with no schooling at all, and appalling stress and dislocation, the children who had to move schools quickly overtook the educational achievements of the slightly older children, who had finished school before the hurricane hit. When bad schools disappear, that is probably a good thing – even for those pupils who must move.
A third concern is that the voucher system will lead to a free-for-all, with schools provided by charlatans or religious extremists.
Clearly there must be some government oversight as a backstop to competitive pressure. The Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg points out that the world’s leading school systems all make educational equality a high priority. That has to give pause for thought to an enthusiast for completely unregulated voucher schemes.
Nobody can be sure what might happen if a part of the UK embraced a voucher scheme; I can’t help thinking that it is worth a try.
Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’