Arson attack on Bristol school was ‘verdict on government education’, says low-cost private school proposer

Janet Downs's picture

'When I was a teenager, kids set fire to the Bristol comprehensive* I attended, razing it to the ground.  It felt likely they were giving their verdict on government education’.

James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy, Newcastle University, explaining why low-cost free schools are needed in the UK.  

Arson attacks on schools are rare.  It’s rather a stretch to claim such an unusual event was a verdict on an education system.  If there is a link between  arson attacks on schools and the nationwide quality of education as Tooley claims, then a suspected arson attack on another Bristol school in March would be proof the UK education system was a catastrophic failure.  In England, the excessive emphasis on test results to judge educational quality is degrading education in its widest sense but suggesting a school fire proves this would be daft even if made in jest.

The professor's article isn’t just attacking the 1976 Labour Government.  He opposes all state intervention in education.  His proposed low-cost private schools are dressed up as much-needed alternatives to state provision.

Professor’s Tooley cites the ‘extraordinary privatisation of education’ in emerging economies as proof the same policy would work here.  But low-cost private schools in the global south are not a magic bullet for improvement.   

Last year Uganda closed all low-cost private schools run by Pearson-backed Bridge International Academies (BIA).   Evaluation of Liberia’s private Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) found PSL schools were not cost-effective: the raised results were at the expense of other schools

Liberia's report criticised two PSL providers for being ‘largely absent from their schools for much or all of the year’.  One of these criticised providers was Omega, a Pearson subsidiary co-founded by Professor Tooley.

Low-cost private schools in emerging economies aren’t as inexpensive as claimed.  In its 2016 report on Nigeria, the Department for International Development found the alleged affordability of BIA schools in Nigeria was misleading.  

Radical school reform is needed in England because ‘around one fifth of young adults in England are functionally illiterate and innumerate’, Tooley arguesThis is not true.   The threshold for functional literacy and numeracy is Level One.  This level is reached by anyone attaining a Grade G GCSE.  In 2016, 98.4% of 16 year-olds achieved at least a Grade G thereby reaching at least Level One.   

 100% - 98.4% is not 20%.  Some pupils would not have taken GCSE or equivalent, it's true.  But it’s unlikely this number would be so high that it raised the proportion of pupils not achieving Level One to 20%.  Such a large non-entry rate would invite serious questions.

Low-cost private schools are not needed in the UK.   It’s misleading for those behind these schools to over-hype the success of low-cost schools elsewhere and claim state-provided education fails because it isn't privatised.


*Kingsfield School, formerly Kingswood Grammar School, now King’s Oak Academy.   The academy’s website says, ‘In August 1976, the greater part of the old timber school was destroyed by a fire. Despite this, Kingsfield continued to grow and flourish…’    

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Nicola Jack's picture
Thu, 09/11/2017 - 15:18

I wonder how Tooley thinks low cost private schools are going to solve the problem of 20% functional illiteracy/innumeracy (even if it was true - which you've shown is not the case)? Providing for the needs of the most difficult to reach students is arguably the most expensive part of the education service and is hardly likely to be 'low cost' (think of the per capita government allocation for a secondary school, for example) and so would need to be heavily taxpayer subsidised. Add to that the fact that difficult to reach communities tend to have poverty as a driver for problems....and it really doesn't look like a feasible solution to the problem of low achievement.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/11/2017 - 11:32

The '20% of UK adults are functionally illiterate/innumerate' factoid has been circulating for years .  Tooley has stretched it  further by only applying it to those aged 16-25.   

When tabloids made a huge fuss in 2012 about functionally illiterate millions in the UK, Channel4 Factcheck investigated and concluded it would have been more accurate for the articles to say:

“More than 15 years ago, 21 per cent of a small sample of people were found to be at the lower end of the scale of literacy, according to a questionable piece of research”.

It's now five years since Channel4 investigated so the questionable research is now 20 years out-of-date.  And 'lower end' doesn't necessarily imply functional illiteracy/numeracy.

Unfortunately, the 20% functionally illiterate/innumerate myth is tenacious.  It's repeated so often it's taken on the status of truth.   A Guardian article after the London riots even claimed the proportion of functionally illiterate/innumerate school leavers had ballooned to 53%.  This was nonsense as I wrote at the time. 

Nevertheless, it's a handy stat to use when someone's trying to say the UK education system is completely broken and needs to be replaced by private enterprise.


agov's picture
Fri, 10/11/2017 - 13:32

But Janet, you talk as if you expect education professors to meet your standards for providing an all-round, judicious, authoritative, balanced, and fair examination of the subjects they polemicise about. Seems so old fashioned. I wasn't aware anyone still expected such things from modern experts. Personally, I never hear of a really good arson attack without assuming it must be the reasoned social commentary of a political theorist of staggering ability about whatever it is some teenager somewhere didn't understand or like.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/11/2017 - 11:38

agov - your comment made be laugh.  If it's true that arson is a sign that the arsonist is showing disapproval of state provision of something-or-other, then an attack on a GP surgery would show state-provided health care has failed and should be replaced by private providers; a burnt down police station would mean the state-provided police force needs replacing by G4S and an arson attack on an army tank would show the forces need replacing by private mercenaries.

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