Byline: LYDIA SLATER
Tony Blair believes he was the first to dream up parent power in education, but he's way off the mark. London parents have got there first
As any London parent knows, there is rarely such a thing as a good free education. Those who are fortunate enough to live in an area where the local school is highly regarded will have probably paid up to 25 per cent more for their home.
Meanwhile, those who go private are groaning under the enormous rise in school fees, which have gone up by more than three times the rate of inflation over the past 20 years.
'There's a crisis in education in London,' says Robert Whelan, deputy director of the free-market think tank Civitas. 'Everyone complains but not a lot happens.' But finally something is threatening to happen. In last month's White Paper on education, parental choice was placed at the centre of government policy. It announced that parents will be encouraged to set up their own schools; a commissioner will be appointed to match potential private backers with schools (Microsoft has already expressed interest), and funding is promised to help convert ambition into bricks and mortar.
However, the capital's parents are one step ahead of Tony Blair; a clutch of parent-powered schools have already opened or are in the process of being launched.
The New Model School in Maple Walk, Kensal Town, is owned and run by Civitas. In the large hall of a converted Gothic church, a class of 14 four-year-olds are happily drawing at plastic tables under the care of the school's one teacher (who has two assistants). The school is only in its first year so as yet there is just one class. Two more rooms in the church are currently being converted to accommodate next year's intake. Maple Walk is already oversubscribed for the next three years, so they are scouting for a bigger property that will hopefully be large enough to offer secondary as well as primary education.
The New Model School aims to provide a frillfree yet rigorous private education, but charges less than [pounds sterling]4,000 a year, bringing a good education within the means of middle-income parents.
What makes the New Model School unique is that it is a replicable model. The aim is, eventually, for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of franchises all over the country. What is required is a group of ten to 20 parents to get together.
Once Civitas has confirmed that local demand exists, they will find suitable premises, employ teachers and, they hope, have a New Model School up and running within two years.
'There's been a lot of interest, and there's a waiting list for our first school. But we're taking it slowly because we want to get it right,' says Robert Whelan, cofounder of the scheme with chairman of the Civitas trustees, Justin Shaw, son of the late Lord Craigmyle, heir to a Scottish industrial fortune.
The schools are financed by public-spirited investors who buy shares on the understanding that the maximum dividend they can expect is five per cent.
'The five per cent annual return is guaranteed, so each [pounds sterling]100 share yields a [pounds sterling]5 dividend,' explains Whelan. 'All other profits are ploughed back into the company.
The point about the five per cent is that it brings the discipline of the market to what is essentially a philanthropic cause.
Victorian housing societies (now called housing associations) used to be run on these principles. Each shareholder is required to make an interestfree loan of [pounds sterling]1,000 with the [pounds sterling]100 share, so the bulk of the money they provide is 'free' to the school. Loans are repaid as and when possible. Parents, of course, are not expected to play any part in raising the money, their role is simply to provide the pupils.' New Model Schools will be unable to offer many of the facilities that paying parents take for granted. …