Giving parents real power: purchasing power

by Stephen Tall on October 26, 2005

Being a school governor is an educative experience: I offer two illustrations. A couple of years ago, the state primary school where I am a governor was ‘Ofsted-ed’. I have long felt there is great value in being subject to outside scrutiny. If nothing else, it forces you to look at yourself as others see you.

In fact, I found the inspection to be a surprisingly negative experience. The four-day whirlwind reconnoitre did highlight some important issues; but this ‘speed-rating’ left a nasty taste in the mouths of those on the receiving end. No reputable organisation would handle its appraisals in such an interrogative fashion.

Then last week I attended the school’s annual parents’ meeting, when the highlight of the evening was a talk on ‘Reading and the Literacy Hour’. For one hour, a full hall listened intently as the art of teaching children to read (phonics ‘n’ all) was de-mystified, and the parents asking interested, interesting questions designed to enable them to improve their child’s home learning.

Which indicates to me the obvious: that parents are the single most important influence on a child’s educational attainment. More important than Ofsted, more important than the DfES, and more important than LEAs (to list but three abbreviated regulators).

Labour appears to have cottoned onto this statement-of-the-bleedin’, with Ruth Kelly announcing proposals she argues will usher in true “parent power”. Sounds great in theory; the actuality is less impressive.

Let’s canter through five of the key problems in schools today:

  • The admissions post-code lottery: parents who want to guarantee their children can get into a good school have to pay: either in school fees, or in higher mortgages. It’s been calculated a 10% improvement in Key Stage 2 results in primary schools is associated with a 7% increase in house prices.
  • A bloated national curriculum: prescriptive government dictation of what should be taught in our schools undermines teachers’ ability to tailor their classes to their children, stifling creativity and professionalism. We need a minimum curriculum agreed by schools, not a national one set by government.
  • Under-achievement: around a quarter of children leave primary school unable to read or write. In the OECD’s 2004 comparison of 15 year-olds, Britain was ranked 11th out of 32 countries in science, and 18th in maths. Just 27% of black children achieve 5 A-Cs at GCSE, compared to 47% of whites – a discrepancy which is a function of poverty, rather than race.
  • Disruptive children: not simply the clear-cut, out-of-control head-cases, but the persistent low-level disrupters for whom there are few effective sanctions.
  • Devalued exams: in 1989, the mark needed to achieve a grade C in the higher Oxford and Cambridge GCSE Mathematics paper was 48%; in 2000 it was 18%. In difficult A-level subjects, such as Maths, up to 40% of candidates are awarded an A grade, and many universities are now setting their own admissions tests to filter the brightest.

Big issues, all of them. So what’s Ruth Kelly’s answer? Well, her insipid education White Paper – Labour’s twelfth since 1997 – proposes that new schools can be set up and managed by parents, private schools, universities, businesses, or faith or community groups; that a “schools commissioner” will help parents set up their own schools and to match potential backers with schools; and that existing schools will be allowed to become independent of LEAs. And, er, that’s about it.

Not much wrong with any of this, but I can’t see it transforming primary or secondary education. Why not? Because the Government refuses to – or dares not – see the logic of its own approach.

If parental involvement is the key to driving improvements in our schools, three ingredients are essential: responsibility, accountability – and purchasing power.

Let’s start from first principles. Teachers are responsible for educating children to the best of their professional ability; children are responsible for learning to the best of their ability; and parents are responsible for providing a supportive home background to the best of their ability. The aim must be to create a virtuous circle, connected by parents, in which motivated children hungry to learn are schooled by motivated teachers eager to educate.

But, of course, this utopia will not happen unless there is very clear accountability, with schools, children and parents all equally well aware of their own responsibilities. The accountability of children to their school and children to their parents is pretty clearly understood. What is currently opaque is the accountability of schools and parents to each other.

In theory, this can occur at different levels: informally (through a parents evening, or meeting with the head-teacher); or formally (via the governing body or LEA). In reality, parents have very little say over how their child is educated. This is for two reasons: first, because teachers are themselves so constrained by government in what they can teach, and how; and, secondly, because they have no option but to accept the type of education their local school offers, or else pay to opt out of the state system.

Responsibility and accountability are both pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by the ability of parents to choose an alternative. To imagine – as the Government’s White Paper does – that new schools will magically appear in order to provide that alternative is fantasy. The only way in which parents will have real choice is if they are able to shop around for the school they believe will best suit their child’s education. The only way in which the market will supply that demand is if parents are in control of purchasing their child’s education. This means – yes, you’ve guessed it! – school vouchers.

Let me be clear. School vouchers are not an end in themselves. They do not offer a quick fix. They would solve many existing problems, but create some new ones. However, let me be equally clear about this: in considering what is best for our children’s education, the key decision-makers should be parents. Schools, and by extension the state, operate in loco parentis only.

Vouchers offer the best, and most flexible, method by which parents can be empowered. They would end, at a stroke, the postcode lottery of schools admissions. Schools which are free to set their own curriculums will attract more motivated staff and children. Their pupils will, in turn, disrupt less, learn more, and achieve better exam results. And if the value of the voucher is greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with special needs, schools will have an incentive actively to seek out those whom the education system is currently failing.

For too long, the educational requirements of children, and the role of their parents in choosing their education, have been elbowed aside by politicians desperate to take the credit for rising educational standards. The state should step back. It is time now for real parental power. And that means purchasing power.