There is hope yet for am­bi­tious par­ents who can­not af­ford pri­vate school fees

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday coment - FOL­LOW Toby Young on Twit­ter @toad­meis­ter; READ MORE at tele­ opin­ion TOBY YOUNG

You’ve got to be taught to hate” is the re­frain of the fa­mous song by Rogers and Ham­mer­stein in South Pa­cific and Jeremy Cor­byn seems to have taken that to heart, al­though not quite in the way the lyri­cists in­tended. Ear­lier this week, he an­nounced that he wants to teach school­child­ren to hate the his­tory of Great Bri­tain. “It is more im­por­tant now than ever that we learn and un­der­stand as a so­ci­ety the role and legacy of the Bri­tish Em­pire, coloni­sa­tion and slav­ery,” he said.

It is this kind of think­ing, al­ready wide­spread in ed­u­ca­tion, that is lead­ing more and more par­ents to seek al­ter­na­tives to state-run schools. The free school I co-founded in West Lon­don, where Latin is com­pul­sory and all the chil­dren play com­pet­i­tive sport, has 10 ap­pli­cants for ev­ery place and free schools in gen­eral are more pop­u­lar with par­ents than all other types of schools.

But there are only 446 of them in Eng­land, less than two per cent of the to­tal of tax­payer-funded schools, and Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Damian Hinds shows lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for ex­pand­ing the pro­gramme.

For many mil­lions of par­ents, there is no al­ter­na­tive to en­trust­ing your child’s ed­u­ca­tion to a group of peo­ple who don’t share your val­ues. Fewer than one in 10 teach­ers voted Con­ser­va­tive at the last Gen­eral Election, com­pared to more than four in 10 vot­ers. One 15-year-old school­boy was given a de­ten­tion re­cently when he de­clared his sup­port for Ukip.

A record num­ber of par­ents are opt­ing for pri­vate school­ing. But with av­er­age fees of £17,000 a year, that is out of reach for the vast ma­jor­ity.

How­ever, there is a ray of hope in the form of the In­de­pen­dent Gram­mar School in Durham, a new, ex­per­i­men­tal pri­vate school for 4-11 year-olds where the fees are only £52 a week.

It’s the brain­child of James Too­ley – that rare bird, a con­ser­va­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor – who was orig­i­nally in­spired by the suc­cess of low-cost pri­vate schools in In­dia. In­deed, pro­fes­sor Too­ley has al­ready co-founded a thriv­ing chain of sim­i­lar schools in Ghana and he’s hop­ing to repli­cate that suc­cess in the north of Eng­land. The sec­ond school in the new chain will open in Sun­der­land next year, with 10 more to fol­low.

There’s no ques­tion the Too­ley model has proved ef­fec­tive in the de­vel­op­ing world. The most suc­cess­ful low-cost pri­vate school chain in Africa is Bridge In­ter­na­tional Acad­e­mies, a for-profit com­pany that op­er­ates schools in Kenya, Nige­ria and Uganda.

Last year, it took part in a con­trolled ex­per­i­ment in Liberia, over­seen by the govern­ment, whereby it com­peted with state-run schools to see who got the best re­sults. Bridge won hands down.

But can the same model suc­ceed in Eng­land, where state-run schools are bet­ter? As some­one who ran a chain of tax­payer-funded schools, I’m scep­ti­cal.

I al­ways take protests from teach­ers about “cuts” with a large dose of salt – real terms per pupil spend­ing on schools dou­bled be­tween 1997 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute of Fis­cal Stud­ies. But Too­ley is hop­ing to run the In­de­pen­dent Gram­mar School on £2,700 per pupil per year, a lit­tle over half of what the pri­mary schools in my chain were get­ting.

He says he’s go­ing to make sav­ings on build­ings and IT, as well as have above av­er­age class sizes. But it still seems am­bi­tious.

I hope Too­ley suc­ceeds. One rea­son fee-pay­ing schools are so ex­pen­sive in this coun­try is that the ma­jor­ity of them are char­i­ties, which means they have no in­cen­tive to ex­pand or repli­cate them­selves – and the com­bi­na­tion of lim­ited sup­ply and soar­ing de­mand keeps prices high.

There are a hand­ful of suc­cess­ful for-profit chains, such as Al­pha Plus Group, which runs Wetherby and Pem­bridge Hall in Lon­don, but they com­pete with high-pro­file in­de­pen­dent schools and charge ac­cord­ingly. Un­til now, no ed­u­ca­tion man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion has seen a com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity in a chain of low-cost pri­vate schools.

If the present Govern­ment re­ally wanted to make pri­vate schools af­ford­able for or­di­nary par­ents it would in­tro­duce a voucher sys­tem – a pol­icy that’s long been ad­vo­cated by the In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Af­fairs, where Too­ley sits on the Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil.

Un­der this scheme par­ents re­ceive a voucher that’s the equiv­a­lent in value to what the state would spend on ed­u­cat­ing their child. They then have the choice of ei­ther send­ing their child to the lo­cal state school or us­ing the voucher to sup­ple­ment the cost of go­ing pri­vate.

It won’t hap­pen, of course, given Theresa May’s scep­ti­cism about red-blooded, free mar­ket poli­cies.

In the mean­time, I wish James Too­ley God’s speed.

I al­ways take protests from teach­ers about ‘cuts’ with a large dose of salt – real terms per pupil spend­ing dou­bled be­tween 1997 and 2015

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