January 21, 2003
Why no private schools for the poor of Britain?

More from Julius Blumfeld

In this week’s Spectator, James Tooley writes of the remarkable success of private education in Africa and India. And he’s not talking about schooling for the elite. These are schools for people who, by our standards, are very poor indeed. The figures are remarkable. Apparently 45% of Ghanaian children go to private school and in Hyderabad the figure is 61 per cent. According to Tooley, this is happening in many parts of Africa and India – all in response to the abject failure of the State education system in those parts of the world.

Why, then, has nothing of the sort emerged here? After all, our State education system is also a shambles and British parents presumably value education no less than parents in Africa or India.

A political culture in which fee-paying schools are regarded as morally reprehensible doesn’t help. No doubt there are also many to whom it would simply not occur to pay for something the Government gives them for nothing. But even allowing for that, my guess is that there are still plenty of people who would willingly stump up a few quid a week to get a half-way decent education for their kids.

The real problem is cost. It‘s just too expensive for most people to send their children to private schools. But why is it so expensive? Teachers are not highly paid and you don’t need much space to start a small school. A church hall ought to do. Or even just a large room in a house. So where are all the small, cheap private schools á la Ghana or Hyderabad?

The problem, I suspect, is that the private school business is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. As a result, opening a new private school is rarely economic at any price that would make it affordable to the majority of people. And this doesn’t just apply to would-be competitors to Eton. The 2002 Education Act decrees that that an independent school is one with five or more pupils. So if you want to start a little private school with five children, the State piles on a mountain of regulations and if you don’t comply with them, you’ll be shut down or locked up.

So there it is. The State takes over education, makes a complete dog’s breakfast of it and then makes it impossible for anybody else to compete. There’s no law that actually says “small cheap private schools are hereby banned”. But there might as well be.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Free market reforms