No, Bromley, This Is Not the Way to Improve Schools; A Kent Council Wanted to Subsidise Private School Places. the Tories Need a Cleverer Way Forward

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne McElvoy

THE BOROUGH so cruelly dubbed "Bromley-by-boring" left its brief mark on the education wars this week. It issued -- briefly -- an anything-but-boring proposal to help subsidise cash-strapped middleclass parents struggling with private school fees.

This feisty Tory fiefdom wanted to use a dormant clause allowing for local authorities to fund education outside state schools in "exceptional circumstances". I guess you could say a major recession leading to a sudden lurch in respectable unemployment qualifies.

Alas, we never got to find out. A legal challenge would no doubt have ruled the idea ultra vires and the political implications for the Tories were toxic. Bromley backed down -- but not before it had thrown light onto a sideline of the recession: the large number of families finding school fees intolerably high and forced into a second look at what the state offers.

A dark secret of taxpayer-funded education in Britain is that it is no more an area of comparative underspend. In relation to many similar European countries, we spend rather a lot. But the results are still patchy and too variable, and faith in the system in the cities too shaky.

Bromley's moment of madness also posed an intriguing question for the Conservatives, as they prepare to inherit the responsibility (and pretty soon the blame) if schooling continues to be one of the great dividers of opportunity in Britain.

As the Kent example shows, many parents who aspired to private education are perforce more open-minded. Having children in a well-performing Islington primary, I find that I am now asked with voracious curiosity by parents whether it is to be recommended, whereas for the past few years, it felt like a well-kept secret.

A deluge of ex-privately educated children into the state sector is a chance to break down prejudices. It has long been argued that state schools would be better if wealthy parents didn't cream off their children to places with bonnets and blazers. Well, here is a chance to test that idea. The big expansion in education used to be the private sector -- now it will be schools which are free (except, of course, to the taxpayer).

The Bromley proposal had its roots in pre-Cameronian thinking on schools -- namely that parents should be issued with a voucher, which they could use in the state system or top up to pay for private provision.

That notion failed to attract support because it would have pulled even more middle-class parents and pupils towards the private sector, leaving only those of very limited resources behind.

Messers Cameron and Gove can see this is the opposite of the new inclusive Tory party. But what they still need to prove is that they can raise the standards of the state sector to attract and maintain bright pupils.

No good idea should be wasted and a very good one lurks in the sawdust sweepings of Tony Blair's original 1997 vision of an improved general education. The end of the "bog standard" comp was intended to be brought about in part by creating specialist schools.

Alas, these have been so watered down that many do not really merit the name. I enquired recently about a secondary school which boasted a rather outre specialism. …