Scottish Tories propose school transfer vouchers

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP addresses the conference. Picture:  Neil Hanna
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP addresses the conference. Picture: Neil Hanna
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SCOTTISH Conservative leader Ruth Davidson yesterday backed a massive shake-up in Scotland’s education system, saying parents should be able to pick and choose where to send their children in order to weed out “failing” schools.

• Parents would be allowed to transfer pupils within local authority area

• Week off a year for carers also proposed

• Over 400 pro-independence and bedroom tax campaigners protest outside of conference

In a major new policy announcement, Davidson used her keynote speech to the party’s conference in Stirling to call for “opportunity vouchers” to be given to parents, equivalent to the cost of educating their child, for them to spend at the school of their choice.

She dismissed education secretary Mike Russell’s claim that Scotland had no “failing” schools, saying that a third of secondaries in the most ­deprived parts of the country were now classed as either “weak” or “unsatisfactory”.

“They’re failing. They are failing their pupils and the communities they serve. It’s a failure we cannot tolerate,” she added.

Under her plan, parents would receive the equivalent of the approximate £7,000-a-year cost of their child’s education. Although they would be barred from using it to pay for private education or home schooling, they would be free to choose any state school they wanted, largely allowing ­parents to transfer children between different schools within their local authority.

Tory figures claim that while the system could lead to oversubscription at popular schools, it would eventually force up standards at the less popular establishments if they wished to remain open.

Davidson also unveiled plans to back a cash grant for carers guaranteeing them a break from looking after a ­relative. The funds, under the scheme, could be used to pay for care cover for a week or a series of weekend breaks.

Scotland has 660,000 unpaid carers, with almost 115,000 spending 50 hours a week or more looking after a friend or relative.

Davidson described them as the “often unsung ­heroes of communities across Scotland” who saved the NHS in Scotland £7.7 billion a year.

But she added: “If we don’t provide them with the right support many will be unable to carry on with their caring responsibilities. As a country we need to do much more to support them.”

She said her party needed to ­appeal to the “decent, hard-working, community-spirited people of Scotland”, adding: “They are the Scots who were once the ­bedrock of our party’s support. But somewhere along the road we lost touch with too many of them and they lost trust in us.”

The two policy announcements formed the centre-piece of a speech which came after a stormy week for the Conservatives. Ms Davidson’s leadership is under pressure, after her decision to back more devolution to the ­Scottish Parliament.

Critics have said they are “unhappy” with her, prompting former leader Annabel Goldie yesterday to attack the “self-indulgent Chihuahuas trying to find a lamppost to piss against”.

In the speech, Davidson called on the party not to “endlessly refight the battles that have gone before”. She added: “Scotland has moved on, and we have to move on too.”

She said she wanted to see a Scottish Parliament that was “more accountable” and that could no longer “hide from its responsibilities”.

A commission under Lord Strathclyde, examining the devolution settlement, will be joined by CBI Scotland’s chairman Nosheena Mobarik and Roy Martin, the former dean of the Faculty of Advocates.

She said if Holyrood did get more powers, the Tories would ­campaign to ensure it led to a cut in Scottish tax rates.

The plan for education took delegates by surprise, although it will enable Davidson to ­answer critics who have argued her leadership has lacked ­substance.

The initiative drew stinging criticism from her ­opponents.

The SNP’s local government minister Derek Mackay said: “The people of Scotland will be horrified at Tory plans to break up our education system. Not content with attacking welfare, pensions and support for vulnerable people, the Tories now want to take apart Scotland’s education system.”

The conference also heard yesterday from former ­Labour chancellor Alistair Darling at a Better Together fringe event. He and former Tory leader Annabel Goldie announced that a new “Forces Together” campaign, formed from members of the army, RAF and navy, will launch this autumn.

Bedroom tax protesters stage rally at conference

AROUND 400 pro-independence and anti-bedroom tax protesters staged a rally outside the conference.

Protesters waved banners that carried the face of Labour MP Alistair Darling, the

chairman of the pro-UK Better Together campaign, along with the slogan: “The Abominable No Man”.

Iain MacDonald, organiser at the Unite union, inflated a 7ft rat with the slogan “Standing up to Tory ratbags”.

Independence campaigners Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan addressed a rally in Stirling’s King’s Park, before marching on the conference in the city’s Albert Halls.

The rally was a reaction to the UK government’s decision to deduct housing benefit

from those with spare bedrooms, dubbed the “bedroom tax”.

Canavan said: “The government claims that this is a way of encouraging people to move to wee-er houses.

“The truth of the matter is the wee-er houses don’t exist. We have a housing crisis in Scotland.”

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23