'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 argues. This 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…’