Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Are "top-up" fees the way to higher school standards?

According to the OECD's PISA Survey Britain's independent schools are some of the very best in the world. Sadly the same cannot be said of our Maintained sector. Despite numerous Government initiatives and significant investment over decades, the British education system remains polarised. There is no middle ground.

However, Paul Collier, the Professor of Economics at Oxford University and author of The Bottom Billion, argues that there is a simple, cost-effective way to close the gap between the very high quality, expensive Independent Sector provision and that in many Maintained Sector State Schools. Professor Collier argues that it is the ban on "blended funding" that causes the "Educational Apartheid" that is the British system of schooling.

Professor Collier maintains that, if parents were given education credits [equal to the amount that the Government currently spends per capita on Maintained Sector provision - roughly £5k p.a.] and allowed parents to top up that sum, that middle ground providers would enter the market-place providing education in the £7k to £10k p.a. price band. He will be presenting his ideas to Government think-tanks over the coming months and we can look forward to him publishing a number of articles in this important debate.

Professor Collier's intervention is timely, for it comes when the question of top-up fees is a hot topic for Independent Schools. At present, most schools with Early Years provision in their Pre-Prep are reviewing whether or not they are going to remain in the Government's Early Years Funding Scheme [EYFS]. The terms of the Scheme have recently been changed, increasing the number of hours that schools must provide free per week to fifteen. To date, many Independent Schools have been subsidising the Scheme, because the cost of the provision is not usually covered by the funds that schools receive and the Government will not allow any top-up fees to be charged. For some schools this has made sense as a "loss-leader", but the new requirements have increased the costs still further. It is very difficult for schools to justify these subsidies - particularly in the present economic climate. Without the provision for top-up funding, it is unlikely that many organisations will be willing or able to support the EYFS. Sadly, at Berkhamsted, we have taken the decision to withdraw from the Scheme, which was due to cost the school in the region of £60,000 this academic year. If others come to same conclusion, it is likely to mean that there simply will not be sufficient free Early Years provision in the area. It would be a very different picture if the Government were to embrace Professor Collier's approach.

Professor Collier in his own words:
Private v state: here's how to bridge the educational divide Independent 14/01/2010

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