Is Durham the right place to be opening a low cost private school?

So Professor James Tooley has announced that he intends, with others, to open the first of a chain of low cost private schools in England, starting with the ‘Independent Grammar School, Durham’ in September.   Is this a good idea and will it help to improve the overall standard of education in England and Wales?   I fear not.

Professor Tooley has done inspirational work in the past, highlighting the contribution of low cost private schools to primary education in developing countries.   His book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ is an examination of schools of this type in India and the contribution they have made and continue to make to the education of young people in that country.   Once the model was recognised there, it became easier to find elsewhere in the developing world and low cost private schools, without a shadow of a doubt, make and have made an immense contribution to the availability of a decent education in developing countries.   But does the rub lie therein?   Would it be possible to replicate this model in England, a ‘developed’ country; would it even be appropriate?

Low cost private schools exist in areas where the provision of education by the state is inadequate or even non-existent.   They exist by using mainly unqualified teachers on minimal pay with minimal equipment and facilities.   This is not necessarily such a bad thing – there are many people teaching around the world who do an amazing job without having been formally trained.   These people are often, though not always, college graduates who cannot find a job or feel that they want to give back to the community in which they were raised.   Even where the teachers are qualified, they are usually young women waiting for a coveted position in a government school to become vacant.   They are paid subsistence, or even less than subsistence in some cases, wages.   Thus the school owners are able to keep their fees affordable and the teachers gain experience and provide a much needed service, one which would not be fulfilled were it not for their presence.

Professor Tooley has, with others, created a model of low cost private schools in Ghana that is undoubtedly making a great difference to the lives of young people and their families.   They effectively deliver a basic education where no such opportunity previously existed.   They often provide an alternative to a malfunctioning state system that is too bureaucratic, rigid and tied to the centre, unable and/or unwilling to respond to local needs staffed by time-servers who, having finally acquired a coveted government job, fail to see why they should do anything other than enjoy the fruits of their good fortune.   Government schools where absenteeism is rife, where teachers are to be found more frequently outside the classroom than in it, where students are used to perform menial tasks such as cleaning teachers cars or sweeping playgrounds rather than being taught in a classroom.   Centralised national curricula are taught, when teaching does take place, in large classes with an emphasis on rote learning; bored children endlessly reciting ‘facts’ approved by the government to the exclusion of independent thought or critical thinking.   Low cost private schools in these conditions provide a welcome relief to local parents.   Their teachers turn up and are in front of classes, the learning is a little more relevant to the lives that these children will lead so of course parents will vote with their feet where they can.   Every parent wants the best for their child and, given the alternative, parents will sacrifice whatever they have to in order to give their children the very best that they can afford.

This is the reality of the world in which the low cost private school exists and even thrives. It is not the reality of education in England in the 21st Century, however dystopian a vision one might have.   The Department for Education sets high standards for all students in this country, standards monitored and enforced by a professional organisation, OFSTED, with outcomes measured and evaluated by internationally renowned examination boards.   This is a system which is fair, rigorous and accountable, not open to corruption and distortion by the country’s elites as can be the case in many other, less developed, education systems.   Yes, there are issues with the system as it stands but they are not so fundamental as to require throwing the baby out with the bathwater.   Many of the problems that exist with out education system are not the result of corrupt or lazy and/or incompetent teachers but are the direct result of the persistent politicisation of education by assorted governments of all hues over the years.   The result of constantly shifting goalposts and a harking back through rose-tinted spectacles at some mystical and mythical golden age of education which never actually existed.   The result of well-meant and well-designed initiatives emasculated on the altar of political dogma.

This country does not need the distraction of yet another educational model.   There is no requirement, especially in Durham with its many high-performing state schools, for a third school choice.   Will this school attract not just attention but also cash away from the hard pressed public sector to subsidise the egos of the middle classes of Durham?   That really would be a crime.   Please, Professor Tooley, I beg you, give up on this unnecessary initiative and instead put your considerable experience and talent to work to improve what we have, to work with the state system to develop an education system worthy of our young people, to help give them the tools and skills to become truly global 21st Century citizens ready, willing and able to take their place in society and to contribute to the life and well-being of not just the people of this country but the people of the entire world in which we live, a world which needs all the help it can get.