Home Opinion “Private education is a bulwark against the tyranny of state education”

“Private education is a bulwark against the tyranny of state education”

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James Tooley

Labour Against Private Schools (LAPS) wants to make it Labour Party policy to “phase out private schools entirely”. That’s not a good idea.

First, it violates a fundamental tenet of the right to education. LAPS appears to be only aware of the first paragraph of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.”

In fact, another paragraph was introduced because of fears about giving the state too much power over education, because of what this had led to in Germany in the 1930s.

Representatives argued that “it was essential to guarantee freedom to choose education, a principle flagrantly violated by the Nazis”.[1] So paragraph 3 was introduced to mitigate the impact of the first paragraph: “Parents have the prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”.

If parents are allowed to choose, then they are allowed to choose private schools. Nor was this some lapse on behalf of the international community – every document putting forward the right to education since has agreed on this, and makes clear that while “free” education has to be available, there is nothing to stop families choosing to pay for private education instead.

So, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, Article 13 paragraph 2 echoes the familiar “Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all”.

But paragraphs 3 and 4, collectively known as “the right to educational freedom”[2], stress “respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities … No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions”.

There are caveats about maintaining “minimum standards” in private schools and a focus on the aims of education, but otherwise, the liberty of anyone to set up a private school is sacrosanct.

Similarly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, has Article 29.2, which reaffirms “the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions”. The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 1960, has Article 5(b): “It is essential to respect the liberty of parents … to choose for their children institutions other than those maintained by the public authorities.”

What LAPS is proposing goes against internationally-established norms on the right to education. That doesn’t sound like a cause that the Labour Party should want to espouse.

In any case, the desire to ban private schools is based on a major misconception, that private education is necessarily about the elite only. This is completely wrong.

Across the developing world, in urban slums and low-income communities, poorer parents are sending their children to low-cost private schools. These schools serve a majority of urban children, and outperform the state schools at fees affordable to those on poverty lines. There are huge numbers of such schools – in Lagos State, Nigeria, for instance, there are 14,000 low-cost private schools, enrolling 70 percent of preschool and primary aged children; there could be 450,000 low-cost private schools in India alone. These schools have nothing to do with elite privilege; the link between “private” and “privilege” needs to be broken once and for all in the mind of Labour activists.

I believe that there is space for low-cost private schools in the UK too, which is why I’ve co-founded one – with others to follow – in the north-east of England called the Independent Grammar School: Durham. With fees less than two-thirds of the per capita cost of state education (and less than one-fifth of the cost of private education), we’ve proven that we can run an Ofsted-approved “good” school at that price point, and that there is some demand for private education at an affordable price – which could be made even more accessible if scholarships were provided.

Without wanting to delve too deep into the personal, I do sympathise with some who react against the elitism of independent schools.

As a working-class lad who went to a state comprehensive in east Bristol (which was set on fire and razed to the ground by its pupils when I was 17) I can find places like Eton and Harrow forbidding. But it is no solution to ban private schools. Private education represents a hard-won freedom and bulwark against the potential tyranny of state education.

If it appears to be more elitist than it could be in Britain today, then think of how it can be made less so – through more scholarships and an increase in lower-cost schools – rather than being tempted by banning and the like.

[1] UNESCO, World Education Report 2000: The right to education, UNESCO, Paris. 2000, 106, my emphasis.


James Tooley is professor of educational entrepreneurship and policy at the University of Buckingham, where he will direct the new Institute for Global Educational Entrepreneurship. He is also the co-founder of Omega Schools Franchise Ltd, a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana, and has also helped develop similar schools in India and Nigeria.


  1. I agree that we need choice and freedom especially for the increasing numbers of parents home educating but it’s really important not to increase division between faith groups and not permitting indoctrination in the private provision.


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