10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 10

Liberate schools and spark a revolution

Last week James Forsyth and Fraser Nelson exposed the full extent of educational failure in this country. Here they explain the simple steps that could change everything Belvedere School and Shorefields School in Liverpool are just half a mile away from each other but educationally they are worlds apart. The first is a private girls' school where 100 per cent of pupils get five good GCSE passes. The second is a comprehensive where only 12 per cent achieve this basic goal. Yet the teaching costs are almost identical and, in a pioneering move, Belvedere is being taken into the state sector as a city academy. It is a prototype for what could be a revolution in English secondary education.

This is as close as Labour dares come to a system which has transformed education wherever it has been deployed, yet in Britain dare not speak its name. lain Duncan Smith called it an education 'passport' and Michael Howard renamed it the 'right to choose'. Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, talks about an 'education credit' and Lord Adonis, the schools minister, does not call it anything. Nonetheless the voucher system, in its various forms and whatever euphemisms are used to describe it, is proving an international success.

Those denouncing the system as the product of discredited right-wing ideology will have difficulty explaining its success in Sweden, arguably the most socialist country in the developed world. School vouchers were proposed in 1991 by its shortlived Conservative government, yet the scheme proved so popular that it has been preserved and expanded by the Social Democrats. This has surprised everyone. 'It was in our manifesto, but it was a symbolic gesture,' says Anders Hultin, an architect of the scheme. 'We had no proposals to roll this out.' But none were needed. To their astonishment, take-up was huge. They had unwittingly harnessed one of the strongest forces in civil society: parents' determination to do what is best for their child.

School groups seemed to come from nowhere. Community groups sent in applications, villages clubbed together. Today one in ten Swedish state-funded schools is run by the private groups and those which remain have been shown in studies to have improved sharply. Headmasters of Swedish state schools now face a threat entirely absent from the comfortable British system: if they fail to please parents, the children will leave and enrol elsewhere.

Freedom to set up a school is enshrined in the Dutch constitution, and today two in three state-funded schools are privately run. This bottom-up approach means more, smaller schools: the average school roll is 200 in Sweden and 190 in the Netherlands. In England it is 890 and rising: closures are running at the level of 120 schools a year.

There are now reams of academic studies on the voucher system and they show that, contrary to common belief, they don't much help the rich. Choice already exists for the wealthy, whether it means choosing between England's 2,200 private schools or buying a house in a better catchment area. The problem in England lies in the 3.3 million pupils in the 243 schools which the Chief Inspector of Schools last week said were failing to provide an adequate education. It is these pupils for whom the voucher system works best.

A Harvard University study into the voucher system in Milwaukee and Cleveland — which offer it only to pupils below a certain income threshold — found that test results after four years were 11 percentage points higher in maths and six in reading. In both cities, three quarters of those receiving vouchers were from single parents on low wages; the middle class had not managed to hijack the system. Studies in charter schools, American equivalent of the old direct-grant schools in England, yield similarly impressive results.

While the last decade has been one of missed opportunity for education in England, the tools for recovery are already here. Exam results in city academies, which bear comparison with the American charter schools, have on average improved at twice the average national rate. There are 47 open now, just under 100 planned for this time next year and 400 earmarked for the end of the decade. If this happens, city academies will account for one in ten state schools.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have toyed with the idea of education liberalisation. When Tony Blair was introducing his Education White Paper in October 2005 he spoke about making every school independent and noted that Swedish exam results 'improved fastest where schools knew children were free to go elsewhere'. But a backbench rebellion forced him to abandon his plans to loosen the grasp which Local Educational Authorities (LEAs) hold over state schools. The subsequent Education Act was perforated with concessions.

The Conservatives at the last election proposed a Swedish-style policy where parents could take the full value of the £5,000 education allocation and spend it on another school. It couldn't be topped up, so the choice would be restricted to the 145 private schools whose fees are below the state level. But this was a superficial restraint: as Sweden found, new schools pop up from nowhere under a system where money follows pupils. And the gap between state funds and private fees is also deceptive.

The deal with Belvedere School — and another, William Hulme, in Manchester — is a model for how state funding can buy good private education. Their fees are £8,000, yet they are becoming city academies at a cost of £5,000 a pupil. This will be done by admitting boys and increasing class sizes somewhat. Add more sixth-form pupils, and the funding gap between private and public closes.

This is a strange time for David Cameron to have dropped the 'right to choose' proposal, which the Blairites had privately considered the one truly radical policy in the last Tory manifesto. 'Two years ago it looked as if they'd overtake us on education,' says one then Blair adviser. 'Now, they're intent on repeating our mistakes.' Mr Cameron's aides say we should wait until the Tory policy review is produced at the end of this year.

This takes the education debate to an intriguing impasse. Both Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown are avowed opponents of the voucher system and speak in sectarian terms about public and private. But the agenda is not dead on either side of the political divide. On the Labour benches Mr Milburn has advanced his personal plans for a voucher system for the poorest. Direct Democracy, a grouping mainly of young Tory MPs, will soon publish a pamphlet proposing a system remarkably similar to that Mr Cameron ditched.

When interviewed on BBC Radio 4 last week, Mr Blair was challenged over the slide in social mobility. While he spoke about his city academy programme, he conceded that his policies 'have not helped in the way that we should those at the very bottom of the pile'. His successor in No. 10 need not need not accept this record of failure.

Next week: Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, replies.