When I was a teenager, kids set fire to the Bristol comprehensive I attended, razing it to the ground. It felt like they were giving their verdict on government education.
Now, after years of compulsory state schooling, around one fifth of young adults in England are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Something dramatic is needed to solve this problem. For many, something dramatic means further educational reform. Anyone thus tempted should reflect back on the sobering experience of the past five decades, which shows that good educational ideas inevitably get distorted by the educational establishment, endlessly modified by new governments, increasing their complexity and decreasing their educational value.
Isn’t there any other way than this destructive politicisation of education?
There is. Something extraordinary is happening in emerging economies that shows there is an alternative to state education. Around the world there is an extraordinary privatisation of education taking place, which research shows, is leading to higher educational standards and greater parental satisfaction.
No government has decided to reform education in this way, the people themselves have had enough and created private alternatives, which have crowded out the state. Importantly, it gives the lie to the argument that we need government to be involved because that’s the only way that the poor can gain an education. The grassroots’ revolution involves the poorest people on this planet.
Poor parents in countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are using private education in huge numbers. In urban areas, typically 70% of children are in private schools, which are affordable even by parents on the poverty line, charging perhaps £5 to £10 per month. In poor rural areas, the figure is around 30%. There are an estimated 400,000 low-cost private schools in India alone. In Lagos State, Nigeria, when private schools were counted an extraordinary 12,000 of them were found. After testing random samples of children, while controlling for background variables, research has shown how children in low-cost private schools significantly outperform those in government schools.
Of course, it could be argued that the reason why people in these other countries are flocking to private education is because their state schools are so much worse than others, so there are no lessons to be carried across to our situation. But it isn’t the only reason. Parents tell me: If I pay, the school is accountable to me. Perhaps here in the UK, parents may have this same desire for schools that are accountable to them too?
That’s why a small group of us in the north-east of England and now in Scotland, through the Schools Educational Trust, have decided to explore whether there could be any demand for independent, low-cost schooling here too. We are already creating in County Durham a low-cost private school charging £2,700 per annum, a first school in a chain of low-cost private schools, that will offer a viable, affordable alternative to state education, and we are looking to do the same in Scotland’s central belt.
Whilst waiting Whitehall approval, we mooted the idea to a few people, and before we knew it, we’ve had 100 expressions of interest. Parents of all kinds have suggested that they’d prefer what we’re aiming to do than what is on offer in the local state schools. Unexpected people, left-wing professors and the like, have surreptitiously told me that if such a school chain had been available when their children were of school age, they would have used it.
I can only conclude that people have been starved of options. The only alternative to inadequate state education for most of us has been to seek reform to state education, which has further exacerbated the inadequacies. Elsewhere around the world, people have cut through this Gordian Knot and embraced a fully independent alternative. I have a hunch that such a solution might be pretty attractive to people in Scotland too.