Two decades ago, I discovered the extraordinary phenomenon of low-cost schools in the global South. In urban sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the vast majority — 70 to 80 per cent — of poorer children are in private education. Schools are fully funded by parental fees, charging around £10 per month.
Children in these low-cost schools outperform those in government schools and are the preferred choice of families on the poverty line. Parents are voting with their feet to leave state schools, and this movement of low-cost private education is the result.
When I’ve spoken about this phenomenon in Britain and America, a question often came up as to why the same isn’t happening here. Everyone knows there’s a market for expensive private schools. But why no market for less expensive provision? Eventually I decided to see if the reason why was because no-one had given it a try.
Together with two business partners, three years ago I started a low-cost private school in Durham, in the north-east of England. It’s called the Independent Grammar School: Durham. The school offered a traditional education, strong on discipline and the foundations of knowledge. Our school fees are less than £3,000 per annum, about three-fifths the per capita funding in the local state schools, and a fifth of the fees in nearby private schools.
The teacher unions didn’t like the idea at all. They picketed all our parent evenings, giving out expensively-produced, glossy leaflets condemning our endeavour. These leaflets deeply embarrassed me: our own were printed cheaply in India on low-grade paper, so the message was clear: one party has deep pockets, and it wasn’t us.
“The teacher unions didn’t like the idea at all.”
Regulators didn’t seem too keen either on sanctioning something which some in the mainstream media portrayed as a real threat to state education – a private school with fees much less than what was required to keep state schools going. It took 485 days to get registered with the Department for Education. This meant that we had to keep on postponing our opening date; not surprisingly, initially keen parents drifted away in droves.
When we finally did manage to open the school, only four children joined us. On that day, I had nearly 40 calls from the major Daily and Sunday newspapers wanting to write about how it was all going, most of them unsympathetic. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in the history of human education, has so much been written, by so many, about so few.
In the first year of operation we had the mandatory Ofsted inspection. We passed with flying colours – an Ofsted “Good”. That inspection perhaps was a turning point; we’d been growing slowly in student numbers before, but afterwards parents became more confident that their judgement about our quality was shared by the government inspectors.
“On the day we opened, I had nearly 40 calls from the major newspapers, most of them unsympathetic.”
Earlier this year we also passed with flying colours the inspection to allows us to expand from a primary to middle school. The school is still small, but in September it will be at maximum capacity according to the fire regulations (65 children), will break-even financially, and thus we shall have proved the model, to enable us to appeal to investors and begin to build other partner schools, in the north-east and elsewhere.
People ask how we manage this, without detriment to the quality of education, and to staff wellbeing and wages? We rent a building, so don’t get funds caught up in capital expenditure. We pay our teachers properly, so don’t economise there. But everywhere else we are very careful indeed with expenditure. Staff wellbeing is very high, teachers love the idea of working in a small school that cares for its children, is responsive and accountable to parents and doesn’t get caught up in educational fads and fashions.
“How can others spend so much on unnecessary things that don’t add appear to add educational value?
The glowing testimonials from parents demonstrate that the school is providing an education for their children that they value. Ultimately, I have to turn the question back at those who ask it: how can others spend so much in schools, on unnecessary things that don’t add appear to add educational value?
We started before lockdowns hit, but the school has grown from strength to strength during this period – precisely because we are extremely attentive to children and our curriculum and teaching approaches fit in well with our parents’ values.
We’re about to break even, after an investment of less than £200,000. That’s what it takes to create a new school from scratch, that is immensely valued by parents and satisfies the regulators that it’s of high educational quality. That and an immense dedication to getting this right and a willingness to try something different, disruptive even.