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School vouchers for Special Needs pupils

    With the new year here, six authors connected with the CPS outline a policy resolution they would like to see adopted by the government in 2013. Today, CPS education expert Tom Burkard writes on the Special Needs racket and how to best serve pupils. Previously, Professor Jeremy Jennings wrote on scaling back legislation in 2013

    Intellectually speaking, school vouchers have a distinguished pedigree: Thomas Paine proposed them in Rights of Man, published in 1791. These were to be given to the working poor, a class which struggled to pay school fees, but were generally not willing to send their children to charity schools. Other than paying fees, he saw no further involvement for the state, let alone starting state schools or licensing teachers. He observed that “There are always persons of both sexes to be found in every village, especially when growing into years, capable of such an undertaking...”

    Although there have been some voucher experiments in the United States, they have never gained momentum. They are bitterly opposed by Democrats and teachers' unions. They aren't especially popular with the middle classes, mostly because America's residential patterns ensure that suburban schools will be lavishly funded and free from ‘urban blacks and trailer trash’.

    One experiment which is still going strong is Florida's MacKay Amendment, which awards vouchers to pupils with special needs. It was started in 1999, and it allows parents of children with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) to take the money attached to their child and transfer it to the school of their choice. In 2011-2012, a total of 24,000 children received a MacKay voucher.

    In the UK, voucher proposals have never been taken seriously because of the 'dead-weight' problem: HMG does very nicely by making parents pay twice to have their children privately educated. Even though many of these parents make huge sacrifices to escape the local comp, politicians know that any proposal that let them out of this iniquitous bind would be howled down by everyone to the left of David Davis. And in any case, even before the current fiscal crisis, no government really was very keen on finding new taxes to fill the £3 billion black hole that would be created by awarding vouchers to all.  Strangely enough, the Coalition seems to have no trouble finding £2 billion to build windmills in Africa, but that's another story.

    Special needs vouchers, on the other hand, might even save money. In the first instance, there is a very high correlation between poverty and special needs, so relatively few middle-class parents would benefit. Secondly, the current system rewards schools every time a child receives an IEP. It's rather like benefits for disabled people: pass out some money, and there will be no shortage of takers.

    Indeed, the SEN (Special Educational Needs) system is a racket. It was exposed by the late Dr John Marks in 2000, when the CPS published his landmark study on this growth industry. At least 75% of the pupils on our SEN registers have very little wrong with them save for poor literacy skills. In the late 1990s, Kobi Nazrul Primary School in Whitechapel actually taught all of its pupils to read, and only 3% of it pupils were deemed to have special needs. Other Whitechapel schools with similar demographics had anything up to 60% of their pupils on the SEN register.

    It's hard to say how many pupils would be able to take advantage of a MacKay-style voucher in England. Nearly all existing independent schools have fees well in excess of the amount attached to a pupil with special needs. Starting a new independent school isn't easy: unless regulations were relaxed considerably, it might take a while for the market to provide places. Rest assured that our Phoenix project would be first in the queue. 

    But such a programme would at least serve to concentrate the minds of schools that are now rewarded for failure. The moment they wrote an IEP for a pupil, they would risk losing every penny attached to him or her. This amount will vary enormously, depending upon the location, type of school, and the pupil's putative 'needs'. And the dead-weight problem is solved very simply by restricting vouchers to pupils who have been in a state school for at least two years.

    Already, plans are in train to give parents of SEN children a 'personal budget' that can be spent at any maintained school. Needless to say, good state schools always have a waiting list, so this freedom will be meaningless unless independent schools can enter the market. Were Thomas Paine alive today, he would no doubt be horrified at the way special needs empires have grown at the expense of children whose parents can't afford a decent school.


    In this afternoon's final piece, Lewis Brown writes on a commitment to freedom of speech in 2013. 

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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