Worlds of Education

To Africa and back: Low-fee for-profit schools in England

published 29 March 2017 updated 29 March 2017

By Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham

Low-fee for-profit schools have become increasingly common in many parts of the developing world. Now one of the figures most closely associated with the growth of this movement, Professor James Tooley, is bringing the idea back home. He is currently seeking government approval to open a ‘no frills’ low cost private school in the north of England (the Independent Grammar School Durham). He has made clear that the plan is to expand the model across the UK, and possibly more widely.

The school claims it will charge fees of £2,700 per year. This compares to the average fee for independent (private schools) of over £13,000, and the estimated cost of state (public) schools in England of £6,000.  The proposed school will not be a faith school, but will have a ‘Christian ethos’.  The Principal, Chris Gray is a past headteacher of a religious school, Grindon Hall Christian School, which was judged ‘inadequate’ by the inspectorate when Gray was its leader. The curriculum will make use of an ‘off the shelf’ programme called Core Knowledge UK, currently popular with UK Conservative politicians.

The school, subject to being approved, is looking to appoint ‘just the right staff’ to get the school established.  The school’s website proclaims ‘we believe teachers are born, not made’, which is often used as code to indicate that teacher education is unnecessary and that professional credentials are not required. This repudiation of national standards extends to pay, where the school asserts that it will not operate national pay scales and that ‘staff will eventually be able to participate in a profit-share scheme’.  This reference to profit makes clear this is intended to be ‘for profit’ provision, although this is not easy to discern from anywhere else on the school’s website.

Professor James Tooley is a long-time advocate of private provision of education, and what is sometimes referred to as ‘education freedom’.  In the mid 1990s he established the Education and Training Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank that had previously had a key role in shaping the educational policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and which consummately reflect the key features of the global education reform movement (GERM).

Now, as in the 1980s, there are radical right wing governments on both sides of the Atlantic, and the ideas that James Tooley has been promoting are increasingly reflected in the policies of the May and Trump governments.  This influence is openly acknowledged.  In a statement of support for Tooley’s nomination to an international award, a past UK Secretary of State for International Development made the following observation:

Professor Tooley’s work on private education in developing countries . . . had a significant impact on Conservative Party and UK Government policy on education in developing countries …. and influenced UK and international thinking on how to make ‘education for all’ a reality. (Andrew Mitchell, MP).

One obvious manifestation of this influence has been reflected in the UK Department for International Development’s support to Bridge International Academies, the provider of low fee for-profit schools in many parts of Africa.  Bridge’s model of low-cost provision, with its scripted curricula and unqualified personnel, can be considered a consummate example of this type of schooling and is reflected in key aspects of the proposed new school.

There is of course nothing inevitable about these developments. Educators in Uganda and Kenya, together with support from Education International, have waged robust campaigns against Bridge International Academies’ incursion into those jurisdictions and in both cases significant victories have been achieved. At the same time, there are countries such as France, which are explicitly committing themselves to the principle of education as a public good underpinning their aid and development work.

There is however no room for complacency. The proposal for the new school in Durham, with plans to expand the model, show the interconnectedness of global policies of privatisation. The example illustrates how ideas developed in the right wing think tanks of the UK and USA are exported to Africa, trialled and developed there, and then brought back to source to be implemented in the places where the original ideas were formed.

Key figures such as James Tooley, with powerful supporters and the ears of government ministers, are able to work across borders with relative ease. Models are inevitably adapted to context, but the fundamental principles are the same – a denigration of public provision and the advancement of private alternatives all wrapped up in a discourse of ‘standards’, ‘choice’ and ‘education freedom’.  There is no commitment to public systems, but rather a desire to see public systems undermined.

This global flow of ideas and policies must be matched by those committed to promoting quality public education. No teacher can afford to be disinterested in developments elsewhere in the globe, because all are now intimately connected. As more and more educators become aware of this, new possibilities emerge for developing a global movement for quality public education for all.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.