In principle, using private funding to help develop bright children in state schools is a perfectly acceptable idea - resources are tight and the Scottish Government is right to explore creative ways to raise more money for education.
However, there is danger lurking in the details.
The idea, explored in a new report by Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, is that private individuals and businesses could pay into a national pot of money which could then be used to provide bursaries and financial support to promising and bright pupils. Similar attempts to involve private money in state education have been tried before, such as the Schools of Ambition programme which was scrapped in 2010, but this new project would be on a much grander scale. It would operate a little like the National Lottery and promise a similar social payback.
The potential benefits for pupils are clear, particularly talented, promising pupils in schools with limited resources, but there are two major concerns. The first centres on who pays into the fund and what they expect to get back. When the Schools for Ambition project was launched in 2005, it attracted the support of high-profile entrepreneurs. The academies established in England have also attracted support from businessmen and in some cases the quid pro quo has been involvement in educational policy, or at the very least some nice headlines and publicity.
The danger is that introducing private money into Scottish schools would attract the same kind of problems. In other words, those who pay into the fund would expect something in return. They must be told: your money has to come with no strings attached.
Rather more worrying is the other concern, which is that the gap between pupils at the top and the bottom of schools would be widened by allowing private money to sponsor certain pupils. The pupils themselves would certainly benefit, but how would they be selected? We know already that middle-class parents are particularly good at fighting for their children and getting them to what they see as the best schools, often selling up and moving house to achieve that aim. The danger of a new system of bursaries is that the private money would end up going to those families and the most disadvantaged pupils would continue to suffer.
There is no reason why safeguards could not be built into the system to protect against these worries and, by way of reassurance, Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, has insisted that the state will always be the primary funder of state education in Scotland, which is how it should be. However, Mr Russell is also clearly open to the idea of philanthropists and wealthy benefactors doing their bit for schools. He says such people can offer dynamism, new ideas and energy and that may be so. But questions remain. First, what would such philanthropists expect in return for their generosity? More importantly, Mr Russell says private money could help reduce the attainment gap. But isn't the danger that it could do exactly the opposite?
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