Million pound bills vs. no-frills – which way ahead for education?

Million pound bills vs. no-frills – which way ahead for education?

Our Group Chief Executive deliberates on the true cost of education, whether private school fees are value for money, and if the solution to education budget challenges could be a new low-cost private school model.

Philip Hammond’s budget last week promised an extra £1bn for education: approximately £500 million to go on improved vocational education and the introduction of the new ‘T Level’ routes, £320 million towards the establishment of new free schools (potentially to include grammar schools) and £216 million for refurbishment of building stock. At the same time, James Tooley, professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle who has pioneered low-cost private schools in the developing world, has talked of plans to open a low-cost independent grammar school in Durham this September, charging fees of only £2,700 a year.

This has attracted a good deal of attention, not least because of the comparison with the high fees now being charged by some of the leading independent boarding schools, which The Times recently reported (March 4th) are now likely to breach the £40,000 threshold for the first time. This compares to an average spend per secondary school pupil in the Local Authority (LA) maintained sector of £5796.

Where does all this additional money go? Clearly the cost of boarding is a significant element, as are the building and other costs associated with significantly more lavish sports and other facilities. The main cost in most schools, however, is the cost of staff, and here the difference between the two sectors is striking: the average teacher to pupil ratio in LA maintained schools is one teacher to 22 pupils, compared with a ratio in the private sector of one teacher to just nine pupils.

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Is the extra cost worth it? Repeated research studies have failed convincingly to identify any clear benefit from smaller class sizes, and it's likely that most of the difference in exam results is driven by demographic and other social factors.

However, any analysis based solely on exam results fails to take into account the less measurable impact of the soft curriculum - the extra studies, activities and sports that private schools are able to offer as a result of their better funding and longer school day - in turn, a vehicle for the development of some of those soft skills to do with communication, team work, emotional intelligence, grit and resilience that are so often said to be absent in those leaving education to go into employment.

Could the low-cost model address this conundrum? On the face of it, any school charging a fee as low as £2700 (note, in this context, the £9000 fees currently charged by the New Model School in London, which advertises itself as providing 'a first class education at the lowest sustainable fees' and is probably a good benchmark for a low cost private education) would need to have a highly disruptive delivery model. This might potentially involve extensive use of blended learning, exploiting the opportunity that exists to deploy technology to manage down the cost base, using a combination of online tutoring and interactive learning modules to teach elements of some of the main subjects such as maths, science and English, which could then be supplemented through face-to-face teaching, tailored around addressing identified individual pupil needs.

The paradox here, of course, is that one of the features likely to prove attractive to those wanting such low-cost schooling (aside from the fees) is the promise of a traditional education, where the social interaction of teacher and pupil is key, a relationship disintermediated by such a technology-based approach. Given the challenges of public funding for education, however, and the seemingly inexorable rise of private school fees, anybody able to develop such an education model would surely be onto a winner.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment