by Harry Phibbs *
In the 1936 HG Wells film, Things to Come, Theotocopulos declares: “We shall hate you more if you succeed than if you fail.” That would appear to be the attitude of some on the left to the newly opened low-cost Independent Grammar School: Durham.
While the average private school’s fees are over £17,000 a year, at this new school they will be only £2,700, which comes to £52 a week. Initially the school is for children aged four to nine but it will eventually accept pupils up to the age of 18.The school is non-selective, with no entrance exam . The term “grammar school” refers to the type of education it will give. The headmaster, Chris Gray, says: “We believe that every subject has a grammar. There is a grammar to English of course. But also maths has a grammar: the basic body of knowledge that children need to acquire in order to master that subject later on.
So the way that we will deliver education is in a more traditional way, a more teacher-led way and sometimes that involves rote learning. Learning things by heart. To repeat and to repeat again until they have a mastery of that subject.” The cost of the premises is being kept down. The school will use a church which still functions in evenings and weekends; the school lease the building for its own opening hours.
The aim is to have a chain of schools, with each kept small. Good order in the classroom is an imperative. The school’s founder James Tooley says: “A lot of parents tell us that at many state schools there is low level disruption.”
While the notion of low cost independent schooling might seem rather novel for the UK, it is a sector in which Tooley has very thorough experience. Ten years ago he was a founder of Omega Schools. They have nearly 40 schools in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Tooley first became aware of private schools for the poor when visiting the slums of Hyderabad in India where annual fees would often be as low as $10.
He spoke to Mohammed Wajid who owned one of the schools – in a building converted from a family home. “His fees ranged from 60 rupees to 100 rupees per month ($1.33 to $2.22 at the exchange rates then), depending on the children’s grade, the lowest for kindergarten and rising as the children progressed through school,” writes Tooley in his book, The Beautiful Tree. “These fees were affordable to parents who were largely day labourers and rickshaw pullers, market traders and mechanics — earning perhaps a dollar a day. Parents, I was told, valued education highly and would scrimp and save to ensure that their children got the best education they could afford.”
In seeking to widen such opportunities at home and abroad Tooley finds he is vilified by socialist hardliners. Kevin Courtney, the General Secretary of the National Education Union, says: “Professor Tooley is trading on the insecurities of parents who would like to have a private education for their children but can’t buy one.” He asks what “compensation will be offered” if this “experimental school fails”.
His proposal for compensation is intriguing. Would he apply it to state schools that fail? The average cost of state education in England is £5,870 a year. Should parents get a tax rebate if their child’s state school does not meet acceptable standards? Or should Courtney’s members be liable for compensation claims if they have failed to maintain sufficient standards in the classroom?
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, condemns the new school tweeting: “Businesses creating budget private schools is no way to solve the education crisis – in fact it will only make it worse.”
Melissa Benn, a champion of “bog standard” state education says: “I understand how these schools appeal to parents, because they’re told ‘private is the best’. But many of the private schools they admire charge up to £35,000 a year. This will be a very different kind of school.”
This school, she argues, is is “chipping in” on the private school brand and will not necessarily have sufficient long-term funding. Perhaps some wealthy parents who wish independent education to be exclusive might agree with Benn.
Are these critics really worried that the Independent Grammar School: Durham might fail? Or is the truth more that they are terrified it will succeed? Usually they attacks independent schools as being bastions of privilege which only the wealthy can afford. This class war message is already rather undermined as cases crop up of assorted socialist politicians, academics and commentators quietly paying exorbitant fees for their own offspring.
But how much more alarming for the socialists it would be if these socials barriers were broken down by a mass market in fee-paying schools. If those on average, or even low incomes, could afford private school fees then the politics of envy would cease to have traction. Nor could the educational establishment continue to ignore the wishes of parents.
It is early days. For any new business to succeed is a challenge and starting a new school is especially problematic. Tooley tells me he is confident about his new school but there will be certainly be many further obstacles to come. “We are very encouraged to have actually got going,” he says. “Winning approval from Ofsted and the Department of Education took a long time. Most importantly the response from parents has been very positive.” Already they are looking for sites for two or three new schools. Even with low fees it is regarded as financially viable as a business model, although it is accepted it will take some time before it is profitable.
But the really bad news for the Corbynistas is that Tooley is not alone. The New Model School company operates two schools in London. It has the same general philosophy as that provided in Durham, namely “a knowledge-based curriculum, which has been adapted over several years by the research group Civitas”. We also have Sophie Sandor who is working alongside Smita Bora, the former founding principal of the International Academy of Greenwich, to open a new school in north London with the same ethos and low fees.
So why shouldn’t the children of window cleaners and bus drivers in Britain attend independent schools? After all, they are much richer than the labourers and rickshaw pullers of Hyderabad. These ambitions are not impossible. But how revealing that it is the socialists who should be so desperate that these schools should fail.
* Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist