There’s something about any mention of private education that brings out the worst in our opponents on the left. The eyes start twitching, the lips quiver, their fists clench in impotent rage, before bashing out polemics that equate spending your own money, on your own children, with harming the poor.
There is no sanity in this position. The notion that identical lessons taught in the same establishment become good or evil depending on whether the teacher is paid by the taxpayer or the parent is nonsense.
Even if private education is a privilege and generally better than state education, which is open to debate, the liberal and unambiguously good purpose of education, whoever provides it, is to unlock potential. If you have the money to do that, what is the rationale not to?
To be against private education then is to believe using your own money to unlock your children’s potential sooner than might be possible if you did nothing is wrong. It is on that basis also an argument against any parental involvement in child rearing whatsoever, given so much access to life-changing opportunity happens in the home and outside world, not in school. Opportunities, in our stubbornly bell curve world, that tend to be materially better for those with money, intelligence, talent, and an interest in their kids. Why pick on schools?
Such a diatribe appeared yesterday on the Liberal Conspiracy website, a forum for the Miliband Tendency before there was a Miliband in charge. In it the General Secretary of the Fabian Society Sunder Katwala argues:
“A real pupil premium could be funded by putting VAT on private school fees, and dedicating the resources to an educational mobility fund. “
Sunder is concerned that fiscal reality has watered down the Liberal Democrat pupil premium and wants something even more progressive. He wants to fund this to the tune of a highly dubious £1.5bn (Tim Worstall thinks £800m more a more likely harvest) by putting VAT on private education.
In doing so what he would achieve is to increase elitism and the divide between the private and state education sector by pricing out parents at the margin, and making very little difference to anything at the bottom end.
I think such vandalism, a deliberate and probably unworkable attempt to disincentivise something unambiguously good, deserves a new(ish) word: Bludge; a fusion of ideologically inspired bullying, bludgeoning and nudging to encourage bad choices.
Down Under, in the place that used to be good at cricket, the word, and derivative Bludger, means to scrounge, evade work, or act as a pimp.
Labour’s abolition of the assisted places scheme was a Bludge, driving the able children of the poor from the best independent schools. Refusing to let people spend their own money on better medical treatment, a scandal in the last Parliament, is another. Taxing relatively modest pension contributions is another. Weighing down volunteering with petty bureaucracy is yet another. I’m sure there are many others.
The opposite approach to Bludge in education would be to break down barriers between the private, public and third sector to encourage more and better education through variety, comparison, collaboration, and competition. If education as a merit good requires a subsidy it should be available equally to all schools offering the standards required of the scheme.
Top-ups on vouchers should be seen as a good thing, it puts more money into schools and helps raise standards. Bar cost there is no meaningful difference between paying a top-up fee to a school or a private tutor at home. Even the hard left realise they can’t stop people paying other people to teach their kids in private, so why make it an elite privilege through artificial price caps? Issues of access can be addressed through scholarship schemes and foundations, based on either merit or the founding principles of the charitable trust.
All these things would make it profoundly more likely that people from a wider range of social backgrounds could access the best schools, and encourage all schools to improve.
The politics though would require politicians to reverse a generation of pandering to the opportunity-crushing ravings of the comprehensive movement and the Bludgers who want to nationalise children.