Soaring school fees can be a good thing, but parents deserve cheaper options
Good news for at least some hard-pressed parents: one private school in the South West has cut its fees by 10pc to avoid pricing out middle-class families. But that in itself can’t solve the problem of ballooning prices.
Last year, the average day school fee was £4,473 a term, up 3.6pc on 2016, according to the Independent Schools Council, which represents the vast majority of private schools. Its figures also show that over the past decade, private school fees have risen by more than 50pc.
And boarding school fees have risen faster. Millfield in Somerset, which is the school slashing 10pc from its fees, currently charges more than £12,500 a term for boarders.
These high prices are in one sense an excellent thing: they are proof of the exceptional value placed on a British education around the world. But that global reputation has also helped to create massive demand, including from wealthy overseas families, helping to send prices into the stratosphere.
Many parents who would prefer a private education for their children simply cannot afford the aboveinflation price increases of recent years. And when they fall back on taxpayer-funded state schools, they will often still end up feeling dutybound to pay a crushing house price premium to be near the school of their choice.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The research of Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University threw new light on how in the developing world cut-price private schools were providing quality education even to some of the very poorest children in the world. That led him to help develop practical projects overseas, including a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana and schools in India and Liberia.
Now Prof Tooley is bringing that insight to the UK, with the opening this September of the Independent Grammar School: Durham, which charges just £900 a term.
Planned as the first in a chain, Prof Tooley’s school focuses on spending money where it makes a difference to student achievement. Otherwise it pursues a no-frills approach, resisting the “race to the top” over facilities that is another factor driving up costs at many private schools.
This back-to-basics approach is the kind of innovation the school sector is crying out for. There is no reason that effective, no-frills private education can’t thrive alongside the runaway costs of the most sought-
Professor James Tooley in front of his new, no-frills private school in Claypath, Durham