Plans by the Conservatives to allow parents or private groups to set up schools in direct competition to local state schools have been questioned by academics and experts who have pointed to indifferent results in many of the schools in Sweden, where the party got its idea from. The issue of choice has also been queried, with a report from the Centre for Economic Performance pointing out that there is already reasonable choice in the British system. It seems that the result of this policy will simply be to dilute funding for schools, making it more difficult for them to improve.
The Liberal Democrat approach is entirely different, focusing on the children at schools rather than institutions. To give every child a fair start, we will spend an extra £2.5bn, targeted at schools taking on children who need more help. This will benefit every child in every school, as it will be possible to use the cash to cut class sizes and provide one-to-one tuition or offer catch-up classes, ensuring every child gets the individual attention they need.
Performance at school is closely linked to children’s background. The poorest children are only half as likely to get 5 good GCSEs as other children. Too often, the poorest children start school already struggling and fall further behind as they grow older. Schools taking disadvantaged children aren’t getting the money they need. The existing methods for distributing deprivation related funding are confusing and inconsistent. Nearly one in three pupils at secondary school receiving free school meals attend relatively affluent secondary schools, including many in Oxfordshire.
Area based targeting misses a large proportion of the poorest pupils – including many in rural areas. There is a huge gap between poor children in different parts of the country: in Kensington and Chelsea, 59% of poor children get 5 good GCSEs, while in some rural areas it is 14%.
We must never forget that even in affluent areas of Britain such as Henley many people struggle on average or low incomes. The government seems always to want to penalise Oxfordshire for being well off but the reality is more complex than any headline figure for earnings or wealth.
Liberal Democrats will pay for this education policy from savings in government, including reforms to tax credits (which will save £1.5bn) and administrative savings in the Department for Education and quangos (which save an additional £1bn).
The choice is therefore investment now in everyone's future or a piecemeal scheme which is likely to allow better off families to opt out of the local state school, paid by the state, thus reducing the size of the pot for everyone else.