Education poll: yes to free schools, no to £9,000 fees

74 per cent oppose tuition fees of £9,000, a <em>New Statesman</em>/ICD poll finds.

This week's issue of the New Statesman (out tomorrow in London and the rest of the country from Thursday) is a special on education. The issue features an exclusive New Statesman/ICD poll on subjects including private schools, tuition fees, faith schools, abstinence teaching and free schools.

So here, for Staggers readers, are the headline findings.

Would you send your child to a private school if you could afford to?

A

Asked if they would choose to send their child to private school if it were financially viable, 49 per cent of respondents said yes and 51 per cent said no. The number of privately educated pupils has fallen since the recession, although by fewer than many expected.

The Independent Schools Council's annual survey showed a 1 per cent fall in pupil numbers, down from 511,886 in January 2010 to 506,500 in January 2011.

Do you think that faith schools should be abolished?

A

Faith schools have had the support of both Labour and Conservative governments in recent times, but our poll found that the public is split over their merits. Asked if faith schools should be abolished, 41 per cent of respondents said yes and 59 per cent said no. At present, roughly 7,000 of the 20,000 state schools in England are religious, a figure that David Cameron has pledged to increase. The vast majority (6,944) are Christian; there are also 38 Jewish, 11 Muslim and three Sikh schools.

Do you think that children should be taught sexual abstinence at school?

A

Tory MP Nadine Dorries recently tabled a ten-minute rule bill that called for schools to provide abstinence lessons for teenage girls. Our poll shows that the public appears to agree with her. Asked whether children should be taught abstinence at school, 53 per cent said yes and 47 per cent said no. Dorries's bill will receive its second reading debate in January 2012.

Do you think that the policy of free schools is a good idea for education in the UK?

A
In a boost to Gove, the poll found that 79 per cent of people believe that his flagship policy of free schools is a “good idea for education in the UK". The schools will be state-funded but run by parents, charities, religious groups and childcare providers. Last June, the Education Secretary suggested that as many as 700 of the schools could be established, but just four will open their doors this September.

Should universities be allowed to charge students £9,000 a year?

A

The poll showed that just 26 per cent of people believe that universities should be allowed to charge students £9,000 a year; 74 per cent oppose the idea. When the tuition fees legislation was passed by a majority of just 21 in December 2010, ministers pledged that universities would only charge the maximum amount in "exceptional circumstances". However, of the 98 institutions that have announced their plans, 67 intend to charge £9,000 for all degree courses.

This exclusive poll for the New Statesman was carried out by ICD Research, powered by ID Factor, from 21-22 May 2011 and is based on a sample of 1,010 responses.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity