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