Low-cost private schools?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Suggestions that firms are keen to set-up low-cost private schools in the UK has raised a few eyebrows. Dr Bernard Trafford is sceptical

Low-cost private schools might become reality in the UK according to recent press reports. The trailblazer for this is the proposed £2,900-a-year Independent Grammar School Durham, awaiting approval to open this September with 100 pupils.

As head of an independent school in the North East, I have a view! But I won’t huff and puff. Charging fees, although not-for-profit and a registered charity, my school operates in a commercial marketplace: it’s not for me to complain if another school sets out to undercut mine.

The average secondary day-school fee is £13,500: London day schools appear this year to be touching £20,000, while boarding tops £30,000. In the interest of openness, I’ll add that my school’s fees are £12,160.

I have read that investors in profit-making private schools across the world are encouraged by the UK’s free schools programme to look at possibilities here. By contrast, others reckon that even charging £6,000 a year, companies “would struggle to deliver better educational outcomes for pupils than parents could get free in a local UK state school”.

To understand how the low-cost for-profit school movement has grown across the developing world, it’s worth reading The Beautiful Tree by Professor James Tooley. He uncovered a flourishing below-the-radar education economy where even the poorest parents scrape together the few coins needed to send their children to a school where they would learn the three Rs. Without exception they reckoned their children received a better education than in underfunded government schools, which too often turned a complacent blind eye to laziness and the diversion of funds into the pockets of grasping local officials.

Prof Tooley found such schools even in China, which provides universal state education and officially denies their existence. He describes a government school in Africa where only one of five teachers turn up for work and largely ignore the 120 children packed into one class. Moreover, if corruption doesn’t do the damage, in other poor countries there simply isn’t the money to fund education properly. The UK government spends about £4,800 on each primary pupil and £6,200 on secondary: a decent sum in global terms, notwithstanding the current funding crisis in schools. So how can a low-fees UK school offer a “traditional grammar school education” at less than £3,000?

The suggestion is that low-cost private schools will reduce staff costs and use technology, pupil-centred learning and a tablet for every child.

Is that what’s meant by “no-frills education”? When UK parents pay school fees, at the levels they do in this country, they don’t only demand academic results, they want the whole package: excellence in pastoral care; extra-curricular activities; facilities; individualised attention to their child. Parents want it all: and why shouldn’t they if they are paying their taxes to the state and then paying school fees in addition? If those are indeed frills, they want them: and they want excellent, properly qualified teachers.

Can all that, plus all the regulatory standards on safeguarding and the rest be achieved on £2,900? I cannot see how. Teachers in every kind of school understand the meaning of a broad education, and recognise that the purpose of education is to help children to grow into sensitive, compassionate, flexible, tolerant and adaptable adults. It’s proving harder than ever to do it on what government pays to its schools: to claim to do it at half the price is, to my mind, a fantasy.

Still, the market will win. If these schools can do it, they will thrive. If they cannot, in the private sector, unhappy parents will simply stop paying the fees, remove their children and claim an education from the state without further payment. I just hope we don’t see dodgy, poorly staffed institutions damaging children’s education and life chances along the way.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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