Low cost schools are attractive investment, says proposer of UK’s low-fee private school

Janet Downs's picture

The opening of a ‘no-frills’ private school in Durham has been delayed, Schools Week reports.  Pre-inspection of the Independent Grammar School (IGS) found problems with the building, a refurbished church which also appears to be used by Christchurch Durham

IGS ‘won’t release details on the school’s financial model’, Schools Week writes.   But there are clues in an essay written by the school’s co-founder Professor James Tooley. 

The low-cost school would ‘employ fresh, new and so lower-paid teachers.’   ‘Fresh’ is a euphemism for inexperienced.   A constant supply of new teachers suggests high turnover.

IGS’s website says the school will offer a ‘competitive salary’.  This contradicts the above.   But IGS hopes teachers will be able to join a ‘profit-share scheme’.  

It’s intended that the low-cost school will be profitable.

We’ve developed a business model… A school with 120 children and 4 classes, could return a surplus when full (after 4-5 years) of around £78,000 per annum. Some of this surplus could be returned as scholarships for the poorest.’

So some of the profit may provide bursaries - but not until it’s been shared between investors.

As a stand-alone school it’s an attractive enough investment proposition. It is very attractive indeed if you think of a chain of, say, 50 of these schools…such a chain would require an investment of around £8 million, and return around £3.2 million per annum once at capacity.’

Tooley is convinced he can ‘convey the miracle of low-cost private schools’.  Apart from using inexperienced teachers and having ‘larger class sizes’ and ‘blended learning’, how does Tooley expect to work this miracle?  

The answer by getting ‘The Sun or the Daily Mail onside’.

Tooley believes these tabloids will convince readers that low-cost private schools can operate ‘at less than half the cost of state education.’  But state education is free to those who use it. 

It may be that Tooley’s low-fee schools would cost less than state-funded schools to runBut would parents really want their children to be taught in large classes by ever-changing fledgling teachers?  And would they be happy to know money which could be invested in hiring experienced teachers was being taken in profit?

 ‘State education systems are harmful, delivering poor quality and low expectations,’ writes Tooley.  Eventually politicians ‘will catch up with us when they realise the world has moved on to its private future’.

But the ‘private future’ is looking less rosy in the global south where low-fee private (LFP) schools operate.   Cross-party MPs investigated these schools and found most low-fee private schools don’t serve the ‘poorest and most marginalised’ children.  They found little evidence that LFP schools produced ‘better learning outcomes’ than government schools once ‘social background’ of children was factored in. 

Tooley runs Omega Schools, a chain of LFP schools operating particularly in Africa.  Omega was recently criticised by the Liberian government for being largely absent from its schools.  

When market forces are introduced into education, equity is at risk.  Low-fee paying schools in the UK will reduce education quality not enhance it.

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