You cannot bank on education

In response to my most recent article, the Times Educational Supplement Scotland published a letter from Ronnie Smith, General Secretary of the EIS – the major teaching union in Scotland.

I copy it here for fuuture reference:


When budgets are tight, thoughts always turn to how the shrinking cake of education spending is to be distributed, as Don Ledingham demonstrated in his column last week. The real challenge for all in education is to fight to maintain levels of investment in education – not to agonise over how to share out the crumbs.

A “flexible learning credit”, as described by Mr Ledingham, sounds a much less objectionable term, but the proposal is really for a voucher scheme by any other name. The effect is to introduce a market in education where the pupil acts as a consumer, choosing where to buy discrete packages of learning.

But which pupils should have access? How and by whom would it be decided which learning packages are to be made available? And could a student choose to spend the whole credit on one (very expensive) course, thereby narrowing unacceptably his or her range of learning?

At a practical level, students in a sparsely-populated country like Scotland would have limited ability to buy learning packages elsewhere. For those who could, issues such as transport costs would disadvantage poorer students. This proposal increases the risk of social exclusion and stratification of schools.

Any significant uptake would militate against the capacity of public authorities to plan appropriate provision of their school estate and of their staffing. Such instability is damaging to all. Further, in enhancing the right of certain individuals to choose in this way, the rights of others to choose are diminished – if, for example, an Advanced Higher in a community school becomes unviable since six out of 10 students have decided to take their “custom” elsewhere.

A focus on the individual merely as a consumer of learning also undermines the concept of the student as part of a school community – a place which generates social, cultural, sporting activity and relationships, as well as certificated learning. This narrows and impoverishes the whole-school experience.

And where’s the evidence that this would “improve the educational outcomes for children”? Consider what happened when we deregulated school meals and introduced a quasi-market of free choice in school catering. Few would argue that it improved the dietary or health outcomes for our children.

Ronnie Smith, General Secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland.

Here’s the article which he is referring to:


The report on Scotland’s schools, published in December 2007 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, criticised the Scottish education system for not making a strong enough link between funding and educational outcomes.

In the United States, there is also a move to consider how “learning- oriented funding” might be used to improve the educational outcomes for children.

My own interest in this area was triggered by considering how we could fund sixth-year students who wanted to take Open University courses through the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme, which allows students to follow Advanced Higher equivalent courses online with the support of an Open University tutor.

The problem I encountered was where to find the funding to allow such students to follow these courses. The reality is that all available funding is locked up in schools through the traditional secondary-school funding formula, typically based on a per capita allocation which takes account of the number of students in the school.

It is this “devolved” budget which pays for teachers and support staff, allows resources to be purchased and covers any other expenditure deemed to be the responsibility of the school.

The alternative model I have been exploring is one which identifies the per capita allocation as a flexible learning credit that students can use to access learning at a place and time of their own choosing. Such a system would support two of the key principles of A Curriculum for Excellence: personalisation and choice.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that every senior student currently carries a nominal “value” to the school of £3,500. Before the start of an academic session, students would select their learning programmes from a wide variety of courses and opportunities, including their own school’s traditional senior school curriculum or other learning opportunities which may be available outwith their own school. Some students may elect to study a distance-learning programme that carries an SCQF credit equivalent to HNC, Higher or Advanced Higher.

Funding would follow the student and be credited to the organisation delivering his or her learning. Most students would choose to continue to study courses at their own school and the funding would remain there.

Of course, there would be real concerns that schools might see funding drain from their own school. Nevertheless, given the challenges facing public service budgets, it is fitting that we begin at least to try to cost the delivery of a particular course. For example, how much does it cost to deliver an Advanced Higher course to 10 students for the teaching equivalent of a day’s teaching time (including the pro-rata teacher’s non- teaching time)? The cost would be 20 per cent of that person’s total salary which, including on-costs, could be £8,000-£10,000 per day. The delivery costs for such a class would therefore be £800-£1,000 per student. Such data begins to show how funding might be used to access other equivalent learning opportunities.

However, one of the benefits from such a scheme is that it would provide an incentive for schools to co-ordinate their senior courses to allow them to specialise in delivering some programmes that are not viable when confined to their own pupils.

The scheme I have described links funding with the learning output (courses), but does not take the next step of linking funding to outcomes (results). Perhaps that is for another day?


1 thought on “You cannot bank on education

  1. thanks for posting Ronnie Smith’s extremely articulate and analytical response.

    I entirely agree with him – even though I hadn’t foreseen all of the issues he raises!

    Perhaps it would be a worthwhile exercise to explain to your readership what the fundamental problems at issue are and what are the causes? Perhaps then we could derive a better solution – I’ve often found that this type of activity can magically produce the answer.


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