Education

Low-cost private schools are transforming education around the world. We should let them do the same in Britain


Since the UK’s first low-cost private primary school of its kind was opened this term by James Tooley, it seems only appropriate to revisit the idea behind the milestone, which has the potential to change everything.

As IEA research has outlined, public choice theory explains many of the state system’s severe shortcomings that entrepreneurs such as Professor Tooley recognise. I recently explained why even the school exclusions debate is symptomatic of its ills.

It isn’t that all private schools are better than state schools, because there are exceptional and sub-standard schools of both types. The freedom to choose the good ones, however, doesn’t come cheap. Inevitably, some end up with no other option than to attend the worst of the “free” state schools.

For opponents interested in maintaining the current system, the perennial solution is to increase government funding until the state schools are improved at an indeterminate future date. What that really means is the poor are held hostage in schools they wouldn’t choose, while the educational establishment enjoy choice for themselves.

Persisting with this approach, in the knowledge that those enrolled in the worst schools would almost never choose to stay in them is little short of a scandal.

How would low-cost private schools solve the problem?

The option to attend them would make it easier for lower-income families to escape, and fill a gaping hole in the market for affordable private schools – no easy feat in the face of the state’s monopolisation of the sector.

Over the years, private education has largely been crowded out by the state, creating a tiny, expensive private sector that caters just to the wealthy. Advocates cut costs partly by doing away with many of the ‘frills’ that, bizarrely, have become typical of state schools, meaning parents are paying for parts of a service that they don’t value and would rather not be paying for.

Tooley’s school, which puts a strong focus on mastering the basics in the traditional subjects, could spur on numerous types of low-cost private schools in the future, and enhance choice. Parents who did not value what certain schools prioritised would not need to pay for them.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Professor Tooley’s idea; one only need look at his vast research and successful school chains in developing countries to be convinced. I recommend his 2009 book, The Beautiful Tree, and his recent publication, Education, War and Peace, for a glimpse of low-cost private schools’ already-transformative effects abroad.

Where there is choice, there is advancement. Parents don’t need to be educational experts to make good choices. They are, in fact, already best-placed to choose because that’s how markets operate. Everyone depends on indirect information about the services they use, from ‘word-of-mouth’ to condensed research published in the media.

“Look after the customers and the business will take care of itself.”

No one is forced to send their children to low-cost private schools, nor to work in them, and they only survive if they improve on existing schools. Good schools, then, need not worry. Meanwhile, inadequate ones would be weeded out, to the benefit of everyone – apart from the few suppliers of state education who wouldn’t be receiving money in the first place, had the system not created unwilling customers.

As Harry Phibbs noted in CapX this week, the ideologues who are objecting aren’t worried that low-cost private schools will fail, but that they will succeed.

Formerly Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute and Programmes Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Sophie is a documentary filmmaker and writer based in London.


2 thoughts on “Low-cost private schools are transforming education around the world. We should let them do the same in Britain”

  1. Posted 15/10/2018 at 19:17 | Permalink

    Define ‘Low-Cost’, please.

  2. Posted 18/01/2019 at 18:52 | Permalink

    You have brought up a very great points, thanks for the post.

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