Professor James Tooley: A champion of low-cost schools or a dangerous man?

The Guardian has a detailed look at James Tooley, professor of education at Newcastle University, who says he wants to see private schools emerge and then the state just move aside from education. This is an extract…

In January 2000, James Tooley, then working as a consultant for an arm of the World Bank, left his five-star hotel in Hyderabad, India, to see the Charminar, described in the guidebooks as the city’s “must see” attraction. As his autorickshaw proceeded through middle-class suburbs, he was struck by the ubiquity of private schools. But the Charminar, a triumphal arch built in 1591, stands at the heart of the old city slums. And, to Tooley’s surprise, the private schools didn’t thin out as he passed through poorer areas. When he continued his journey on foot, deeper into the slums, “there seemed to be a private school on every street corner”.

These were not, with a few exceptions, philanthropic concerns run by charities. They were private, profit-making enterprises, run by local entrepreneurs and charging rock-bottom fees to poor parents. Nor, it turned out, were they confined to Hyderabad. As Tooley went elsewhere in Africa and Asia – to Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, even China – he found similar schools. He ventured down stinking alleyways, stepped through open sewers, tramped to remote villages. Poor parents, exasperated by the failings or even non-existence of state education, had exerted “people power” and achieved what Tooley calls “grassroots privatisation”…

Tooley, 54, is charming, jolly and generous, and nobody who knows him doubts his sincerity and his genuine enthusiasm for what are, rather ambiguously, called “low-cost private schools”. Nor would anyone now seriously dispute the existence of such schools or even their frequent superiority to neighbouring state schools, though the scale of the superiority is disputed.

But some would say that as far as state education is concerned, Tooley is a dangerous character. He has been described as “the high priest of privatised education in Britain” and, by Stephen Ball, a professor at London University’s Institute of Education, as “a policy entrepreneur par excellence”…

Though he described the Hyderabad visit as “my epiphany, when the bits of my life came together”, the Damascene moment, he said, occurred much earlier at the Institute of Education in London when, during PhD studies, he read EG West’s Education and the State, a sacred text for free marketeers. It argued that, long before the 1870 Education Act established compulsory state education, the majority of English children were literate, thanks to private and voluntary schools. Tooley found private schools in Hyderabad because he wanted to find them, having accepted the West thesis that, in the early 19th century, they were doing a brilliant job in England and would do so again if the state stepped aside.

Now he has become an investor in private schools, remortgaging his house and sinking his savings into schools for the poor in the developing world. He initially linked with Orient Global, founded by the New Zealand-born billionaire Richard Chandler who specialises in investing in developing economies, to work in China and India. He soon broke with Chandler, but refuses to talk about the details – except to say, in future, he will be more wary of men with Boeing 737s – and concentrated on building Omega Schools with a local partner in Ghana. The company opened its first schools in 2009, and now has 40, with 20,000 pupils. Tooley predicts 100 schools with 50,000 pupils next year…

Tooley believes that countries such as Britain should learn from India, Ghana, Kenya and others. We, too, could have low-cost private schools if they were run commercially, as established schools such as Eton and Harrow are not. With bigger classes, more modest buildings, less experienced teachers and more technology, they could charge less than £2,000 a year per pupil.

“I don’t support Michael Gove’s free schools or US charter schools,” he says. “I’m a purist. The government shouldn’t privatise education because it will make a mess of it, as it did with the railways. I want to see private schools emerge and then the state just move aside from education.”

He is unfazed when you suggest that, in a schools market, as in energy, banking, retail and a host of other markets, we would end up with a handful of big chains, some controlled by hedge funds or foreign conglomerates, spending more on sales, marketing and shareholders’ dividends than on teaching children, and restricting choice rather than widening it. He says that school chains with names such as EasyLearn or Virgin Opportunity could, to parents, carry similar guarantees of quality and reliability as those of Sainsbury’s or Boots. But he also says there should be and will be room (without quite explaining how) for more local school enterprises.

Fanciful ideas? Perhaps, until you think how rapidly they are spreading across the developing world and how private capital is making inroads to higher education both here and in the US. I like Tooley but, if I were a highly qualified teacher working in a publicly funded school, particularly in Newcastle (“a good place to start a low-cost private school,” he says), I would be afraid of him. Very afraid.

More at:  Professor James Tooley: A champion of low-cost schools or a dangerous man?

Your thoughts on Professor Tooley’s ideas about low-cost private schools, whether overseas or in the UK? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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  1. Janet2

    Tooley’s book, “The Beautiful Tree”, is published by the Cato Institute, a right-wing, libertarian US think-tank founded by the billionaire Koch brothers whose billions unduly influence US state legislation.

  2. TeaLadyJune

    .SchoolsImprove I am afraid; Gove’s made a start overseeing an haemorrhaging of high quality expensive teachers from the academy system!

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