Here’s why ‘low-cost’ private schools in England WILL work

One of the architects behind proposals for a low-cost private school in England explains why he believes the ‘no frills’ education model can take off…

My work over the past 17 years has focused on low-cost private schools mainly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In these regions, private education is everywhere, even for low income parents.

Over 70% of children go to private school in Lagos State, Nigeria, for instance, while even in rural India, 30% of children are in private school.

When giving talks about my work, I’m often asked whether I think there would be any interest in low-cost private schools in England.

Clearly state schools in the UK do not suffer from the parlous conditions of government schools in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which is obviously a key reason for parents to choose private.

Even in rural India 30% of children are in private school

But it isn’t the only reason. A strong motivation is that parents want to be in control of their children’s schooling. Parents tell me: If I pay, the school is accountable to me.

In England, parents may have this same desire for schools that are accountable to them too.

A couple of years ago, when I first mooted the idea of low-cost private schools in the UK, I got my team at Newcastle University to conduct some research, interviewing opportunistically selected parents, on street corners, in market places and the like.

Although not a randomised sample, nevertheless it showed some interesting results:

Our sample turned out to be slightly below-average income. Of the parents interviewed, 62% said that they would be interested in sending their child to an affordable private school.

Parents indicated they’d be willing to pay for “quality of learning” (82%) and “quality of teachers” (65%). Of all survey respondents, around one fifth thought they could afford a school costing around £50 per week.

A couple of parents from Gateshead elaborated on their responses, one said: private schooling in UK is strictly seen as an upper echelon characteristic, but we think of it more a ‘thing to do’ and are even ready to exist on toast and baked beans for the rest of our lives to put our kids through a posh school.

Another said ‘as a parent in north east I am very concerned about the quality of schooling my son receives and the only reason I don’t go private is because of the costs involved, we genuinely can’t afford to spend approximately £900 a month towards fees’.

Some parents are ready to exist on toast and baked beans to put their kids through a posh school

The survey seems to suggest there could be demand for private education if fees are low enough.

Evidence on family discretionary income, provided by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, shows that an average family would have about £108 per child per week available to spend, after they’ve paid for all necessities (such as food, clothing, housing, utilities, transport, communication, health, as well as costs of children’s schooling such as uniform, books, and transport to school).

A family at the bottom third of income might have about £72 per child per week.

Read more: Why they WON’T work

Clearly that’s not enough to afford current private school fees: £10,000 per annum is about £200 per week. But it is just about enough to afford a private school charging £52 per week, which is what we will offer.

Would families be interested in our low-cost private school?

We know we can provide a high quality education which is low-cost because ‘no frills’ – no Olympic-sized swimming pools, no cricket grounds, no magnificent (but expensive to maintain) old buildings.

We know that we will train and mentor our teachers well to deliver a sound, academically-rigorous education.

And since launching our website last week, we’ve had 20 expressions of interest from parents already. We’re willing to risk our capital and reputations on the strength of our hunch that, if we build it, they will come.


James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University

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  1. Glenda Hall

    My eldest son Andrew initially attended a low cost no frills Montessori in Sunderland (he is now 33) He started when he was 2 and left to attend the RGS in Newcastle from age 8. The Montessori school had little facilities no canteen no playing field nowhere to eat other than the classroom However it did have strong discipline and no frills teaching of the 3 R’s which gave Andrew a good base and strong foundation for his future career as a solicitor.
    I sent Andrew to RGS in Newcastle at age 8 to benefit from the good education and varied sports facilities that this school offered to boys. Boys have trenedous energy and while Andrew was academically able he needed to run off his energy to be able to concentrate in the classroom.
    We do our sons a disservice if we ignore the basic differences between the sexes and continue to reduce lunch times and sell off playing fields Instead we should harness the energy and potential of these children and allow them to thrive. Girls also if they wish.
    Andrew was lucky enough to go to Cambridge University – I believe the strong foundations given to him at the Montessori prepared him well. Unfortunately my second son Alex had a very different experience 13 years later and I have been shocked by the effects of Ofstead and this government on quality education. Ofstead closed the Montessori school due to their demands for better facilities and computer rooms etc – none of which in my opinion is needed in Primary and certainly not before our children can read.

  2. Stephen Fowler

    James Tooley – I got your link via Alan Smither’s website

    Point (1) Assessment of Effectiveness

    I am a private tutor and in my opinion a good tutor can get an average ability child to near the top or to the top at school, whereas a poor tutor has very little effect. So there is a vast difference. What there needs to be done if these low cost schools are introduced, is a method of assessing how effective the school is. Then market forces can apply, and the successful schools will get the ‘customers’ and the unsuccessful ones will not. And if there are government subsidies, with proper assessment, the government subsidy money will go to those who deliver – then the successful ones will so far outperform the state sector that it will expose the state sector for, in the main, failing to deliver. Then the government will be forced to act to address the failure of most state sector schools, or to expand the private sector. The contrast will not be that the private ones are 5% better or 10% better – they will be 300% better in terms of rates of improvement.

    So it is important that the main criteria for success is simply: how levels are improved. This is more important than assessing on the basis of paperwork produced by the school about lesson plans and learning objectives and goals etc. When form-filling and box-ticking is the criteria you can get inverse ratings – where the best are downgraded and the worst come out top. A local excellent school has been downgraded by Ofsted but is in such demand that the catchment area is very small – about a mile. The parent demand says more than the Ofsted rating. It seems to me that perhaps the school was downgraded as they offended the inclusion policy (inclusion includes the bad ones) but in the eyes of the parents this improved the school. So something that improves the school to the parents and other children is something that makes the school worse in the eyes of Ofsted.

    Once the appropriate assessment method is applied, then market forces can be unleashed. But without it it is possible for these new private schools to pretend to the parents that their child is doing fine when they are not. In fact this is what happens in the state sector at present. EVERY PARENT who comes to me is told their child is doing fine at school. They are often surprised to find the child is actually middle or bottom of the class. They have no idea of this when they come to me and I have to explain that ALL parents are told their child is doing fine and NO parent is ever given class position. The way I find class position is to ask the child what table they are on – blue, green etc, then a few questions later we establish if this table is a top, middle or bottom one. Although the teachers never ever mention it, and never tell the parents, in fact all children have a good idea of their class position.

    The method of assessment should be as follows: external examiners visit the schools continuously throughout the year and take about five children at a time into a room and give them a test. Each child would end up having about twelve assessments a year in total. Then a graph of progress can be produced for each child. The tests would be downloaded in situ from the internet, then the completed papers scanned in immediately and sent off for remote marking. ie the papers popped into a scanner at the end of the test that is connected to the internet. The marks would be available the next day.

    Point (2) Start off Small
    For the best talent to be found, so the best teachers can form these schools (and be talent spotted to join larger ones), and not just wealthy people form these schools, the formation of these schools should not be available only to those with significant self-funding. Initially the rent and other costs would be high and it takes time for numbers of children to build up. (It took me six years). We all know the type of person who is able to set up an academy, for example, – a businessman with contacts, good at dealing with bureaucracy, good in meetings, good at phone calls to officialdom, good at forms, very determined, good at chasing, forceful, self-financing while all this is going on for a year – nothing to do with teaching though.

    But the solution is not just to hand out grant money willy-nilly.

    One solution would be for the local council to set up ‘tutor school’ premises where anyone who meets certain criteria can open a unit and pay a small rent then start off – eg offering to tutor initially for £20 a week. If the rent was £60 for the unit then this person would be able to meet costs for several months with only three children, and if he or she were good, the client list would soon build up.

    Then natural forces would apply in determining who was successful, which are a hundred times more effective than handing over the task of assessment of effectiveness to ‘education experts’. Let the only criteria be the rate that levels are improved, and keep out the ‘experts’ who have brought British education so low with all their ‘expertise’.

    Point (3) Dealing with attacks on the Private Sector from fans of the state system
    As for ‘unsuitable types’ starting these mini-school businesses (ie tutor groups) in these large buildings (with glass walls), it cannot be worse than what the state provides. A child in primary school told me of a boy ‘with anger problems’ being next to bat in the sports field, then another boy pushed in, then the boy with anger problems attacked him. He pummelled the face of the other boy whilst sitting on him. The teacher did not intervene. She sent a girl who ran off to get the head. The head WALKED over and the boy stopped. The boy with bloodied face ran off and was caught in the car park by the teachers trying to run out of the school. The boy who attacked him was sent home for the afternoon. That was the only punishment. The teacher said the other boy should not have made him angry. The whole class including the teacher had stood and watched the SUSTAINED assault, and were very upset and angry. The teacher did not intervene or ask the other boys to pull him off. In that school there is a tent in a room with balloons in. If a child ‘with an anger problem’ feels angry, they can go in the tent and pop some balloons. This is how they deal with these violent children. HOW COULD ANY PRIVATE SYSTEM BE WORSE THAN THIS in terms of guarding the well-being and safety of the children?

    In another primary school a Year 3 girl broke another child’s arm. Her ‘punishment’ was to spend the afternoon in a Year 4 class. The Year 4 children were also afraid of her. The next day she stabbed another child in the head with a pencil. HOW COULD ANY PRIVATE SYSTEM BE WORSE at keeping children in their care safe? Remember, these are mainstream state primary schools.

    The opponents will look for bad things in the private sector, therefore it is important to monitor the state sector to make sure their incidents are reported.

    A child in another school (a quiet boy) was punched in the face causing bruising by a boy ‘with behaviour problems’. The school did nothing. The parent complained. The school said they would get back. They did not. The parent chased it up. The violent boy and the quiet boy were taken into the teacher’s room and the violent boy was told to apologise and that was the only punishment he got. I would like a system where the parents can check if in fact incidents such as these are recorded (as they are in theory).

    Another boy in another school reported a boy fighting and the teacher pretended not to hear.

    In another school a boy was semi-strangled and humiliated in front of the others. The teacher allowed this bully to sit next to his victim after the attack to torment him. The parent complained. After that the teacher ‘asked him to move’ every time he sat next to him in future. The victim became withdrawn and was in my view traumatised, but the school did nothing except ask the bully to move as I describe.

    These stories above are the reason why parents want to take their children out of the public sector, not just that levels of teaching are so low. But it is important to check that state schools are recording these incidents, otherwise the large logs of the public sector will be ignored, while the specks of the private sector will be highlighted.

    Point (4) The Politics of the State Sector Advocates, and their angle of attack
    It is a strongly-held principle of those who strongly support the state that the violent and bullies and disruptive are kept in mainstream. They cannot abide the notion that these children are removed from the rest. Watch any fly-one-the wall documentary on British state schools to see such teacher types almost shedding tears when a bad one is finally expelled. Therefore the political type of teacher who supports the state will strongly oppose any private system in which the school is allowed to expel the ones who cause trauma to the others. But they will not say this is their motive – ie inclusion above safety – rather they will say their motive is to oppose ‘selection’. The way to handle this is for the private sector to have to take on two low ability children for every one (of any ability) that they expel. Or monitor them some other way to ensure they take on low ability children. A good school would not mind at all. I teach many low ability well behaved children. I am very happy to have them in my group and so are the other children and so are the other parents. This is the way to handle the attacks from the political types about elitism etc. No private school minds the slow learners who are well behaved.