State school campaigner Janet Downs explains why proposals for a new ‘no frills’ private school in England – charging parents just £52-a-week – will flop…

Low fee paying (LFP) schools already exist in England.

They are schools not affiliated to the Independent Schools Council and likely to charge lower fees. But even their low fees are not as likely to be as low as the £2,700-a-year fee charged by the proposed Independent Grammar School: Durham (IGS: Durham).

Professor James Tooley, one of the school’s founders, says fees will be low because the school will have ‘no frills.’  IGS: Durham will offer an education ‘traditionally associated with a grammar school’ in premises which will be ‘simple and unpretentious’ but ‘clean, hygienic and welcoming’.

The school will use Core Knowledge UK. This is an anglicised version of a curriculum developed in the United States and is regularly promoted by schools ministers.

The first book, ‘What Your Year 1 Child Needs to Know’, was co-edited for the UK by Annaliese Briggs, the short-lived head of Pimlico Free School. This book, and others in the series, will be used to “significantly enhance” the curriculum at IGS: Durham.

Core Curriculum UK is like Marmite: you love it or loathe it. The books have an irritating Joyce Grenfell style. And there are mistakes. Year 1 pupils learn “History starts with the Romans!” Year 6 are told Bolivia is the largest South American country and Bolivians speak Portuguese (see image).

There’s nothing wrong with syllabus planning – it’s vital. But closely following an off-the-shelf product can mean less flexibility for teachers. There’s a danger that such books could become scripts for unqualified teachers. And using unqualified staff reduces costs.

There’s no suggestion this would happen at IGS: Durham. But it’s what happens in many LFP schools in other parts of the world.

An example is Bridge International Academies (BIA), which runs schools following what has been called the “academy in a box” model in countries in the global south.

But in September the Ugandan government ordered all BIA schools to close, a decision that BIA is still appealing. One reason was the schools used materials that couldn’t promote teacher/pupil interaction. The others were that BIA schools operated in shoddy, unhygienic buildings.

Again, these last two don’t apply to IGS: Durham. But the question remains whether refurbished, redundant buildings can really offer the same standard of accommodation, particularly at secondary level, as most state schools? This also applies to many free schools, of course.

Professor Tooley’s work on LFP schools is described in his book The Beautiful Tree, which describes the proliferation of LFP schools in Hyderabad, India. But in 2010, Sussex University academics found  LFP schools reduced costs by hiring largely untrained teachers. And they questioned whether LFP schools were affordable to the extent Professor Tooley claimed: ‘Tooley’s reports in terms of LFP affordability should be treated with caution,’ they warned.

It plays on the regrettably snobbish view that independent schools are always superior

The establishment of IGS: Durham is supported by the claim it offers parents choice. But the OECD found offering choice wasn’t linked to a country’s performance in PISA tests. PISA in Focus 42 (2014) said ‘in systems where parents can choose schools, and schools compete for enrolment, schools are often more socially segregated’.

The website of IGS: Durham implies that ‘private’ and ‘grammar’ are superior to other types of state schools. They aren’t.

The private school ‘advantage’ disappears when socio-economic background is taken into account. And the ‘success’ of grammars is down to their selective intake.

Adopting the trappings of private schools, for example, calling terms ‘Michaelmas’, ‘Lent’ and ‘Trinity’ as IGS: Durham will do, does not automatically result in an outstanding education.

Yet that’s what the school’s website claims: it says it ‘offers an outstanding education’. This appears a little premature. And perhaps misguided since the co-founder, Chris Gray, was head of Grindon Hall Christian School when it was judged “inadequate”.

Introducing more LFP schools into the already fragmented English school system is not the answer to improving education in England. It plays on the regrettably snobbish view that independent schools are always superior to state-funded ones. Non-association private schools are less likely to be better than state schools, which raises the question why more are needed.


Janet Downs is a blogger for Local Schools Network