Say what you like about the Conservative party, but they seemed, temporarily at least, to have got it just about right on education policy during the last election, when they advocated giving parents £5000 per year to spend on the education of their child. (Ideally they wouldn't be taking the cash of us in the first place, but from where we currently stand, this suggestion seemed like a step in the right direction.)
There were aspects of the policy that badly needed clarification and tweaking. We needed to know that parents would have genuine free choice. Could they have used the funds to home educate, for example? And there was the ridiculous 'no top-up' rule, whereby you could not send a child to a school that cost more than £5,000 per year, the rationale of which seems befuddling as it would at least partially hobble the good aspects of the policy which was to introduce genuine choice and competition into the field. It would also have been necessary, in order to ensure that proper competition could really kick in, to reduce the regulatory load and ridiculous bureaucracy, so that new schools could spring up without this particular burden.
With these tweaks, the policy did look likely to solve many problems with education. Parents would have been able to choose the best possible educational location for their children. Sink schools would close down. Power would be removed from educrats and returned to families.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to see David Cameron MP, the new shadow education minister, not mentioning any of this at all in his recent policy announcements. When interviewed on the Beeb, he seemed to be batting on about phonemes, discipline and the like. I thought perhaps I had missed the beginning of the interview. He must have mentioned vouchers before I switched on. But no, it seems the Tories are backtracking on the one policy that finally seemed to hold out some hope for success.
According to George Jones, the Telegraph's political editor,
"Mr Cameron told the Conservative national education society in London that the Tories were in danger of "missing the big point" in education by talking more about "structures" and giving parents greater choices between different sorts of schools...Mr Cameron said Tories should focus on simple and straightforward issues. "Discipline. Standards. Promoting teaching methods that work. Scrapping those that don't. Building on tests, league tables and exam standards that genuinely measure success, failure and progress."
Good GRIEF!!! It seems as if Mr Cameron has absolutely no sense of what it means to belong to a party of small government. The difference between him and Ruth Kelly is hard to detect. The whole point about giving power back to parents is not so that one abandons the aim to raise standards, but so that parents actually become involved in improving the situation - something that no massive mission statements from above and layers of inefficient and self-interested bureaucracy can possibly hope to achieve. Parents and their children would have weeded out the failures. Had home education been facilitated by this policy, schools would really have had to think hard about how to meet the needs of their pupils who would overnight turn from serfs to consumers.
None of the centralised policies of recent years have worked. Empowering parents and children does work, for the simple reason that they know best what suits them and what motivates them, and motivated learning is the only really valid way to learn.