Is this a no-frills revolution?

A new kind of independent school is offering high-quality education without the snootiness and huge fees of old. Sarah Cassidy takes a critical look
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The Independent Online

The new school year has begun at Sherfield School in Hampshire and with it an ambitious experiment that aims to transform the British educational landscape. Past the ornate gates, the sweeping drive and the 75 acres of rolling lawns, 85 black-blazered pupils are beginning their lessons as part of a multimillion-pound project to bring private education to middle-income parents.

The new school year has begun at Sherfield School in Hampshire and with it an ambitious experiment that aims to transform the British educational landscape. Past the ornate gates, the sweeping drive and the 75 acres of rolling lawns, 85 black-blazered pupils are beginning their lessons as part of a multimillion-pound project to bring private education to middle-income parents.

Just 7 per cent of children in the United Kingdom are being educated in private schools. But research suggests that more than half of parents would send their children to independent school if they could afford the fees. If the dreams of Sunny Varkey, the chairman of Global Education Management Systems (Gems), are realised, then tens of thousands more children in the UK could soon be learning in schools run by his Dubai-based chain.

Gems is a controversial new chain of independent schools that aims to extend private education to families who until now have felt it was beyond their reach. Varkey's strategy hinges on his belief that there is widespread unrest among parents. He argues that many families feel that their children are being failed by state schools, but they cannot afford elite schools' fees. While independent school fees can cost more than £20,000 a year, some of Varkey's institutions will charge as little as £5,000 a year.

Tanya Brewin is typical of the kind of parent Varkey is hoping to attract. A single parent with a demanding job as a manager of a lettings agency, Tanya enrolled her three children at the £8,580-a-year Sherfield after becoming disenchanted with traditional private education. She wanted better standards than the state sector, but without the long hours and snobbishness she had encountered at the traditional prep school previously attended by her three children.

"I think Sherfield will combine the best of the independent sector with the best of the state system. From what I've seen I think it will not be snobbish. A lot of the independent schools seem stuck in the old school tradition. This seems much more down to earth and full of solid, middle-class values for people like us.

"We live a fairly modest middle-class life and a lot of the other children at my children's previous school were in a totally different league. I was worried that they would find it hard. The children would come home saying that so-and-so wanted them to go to Barbados for a month."

Suzi Stewart agrees. Her son Alexander, aged six, has already experienced the downside of being educated with the super-rich. "He was already not being invited to things because we didn't live in a big house like some of the others," she says. "It was really nasty. We also wanted a school that finished at 4.30."

Mother-of-four Divya Proctor agrees. Her son Alexander, 12, has started at Sherfield. His three siblings will continue at their state primary, but Divya plans to transfer them to Sherfield at age 11. "We just want our children to go to a school where they are going to mix with children who want to work, who have good manners and morals and will instil those values in them," she says. "Secondary schools in our area are very poor. We were going to move to get our son into a better school but it cost a fortune in stamp duty alone. So we are spending the money we would have spent moving house on the school fees."

This is precisely why Gems targeted this area of Hampshire for its flagship "premium" school, charging almost £10,000 a year for senior pupils - because all its market research showed that there were enough local parents willing to pay. The company hopes to establish a three-tier model of schooling in the UK: "mid-market", charging between £5,000 and £6,000, "mid-market plus" charging between £7,000 and £8,000, and "premium" schools which command £9,000 to £10,000 a year for senior-school pupils.

Sherfield was the third school to be bought by the Dubai-based chain. Since then, the company has bought a further 10 schools from Nord Anglia, the education-services provider. And it has more ambitious plans for the future, planning to buy up to 30 existing independent schools, build 20 to 25 new schools on greenfield sites, and to win contracts to manage 120 more schools in the next five years.

All has not been plain sailing; Varkey has expressed his frustration at British planning law, which has not seen a new private school built for decades. But John Bridger, the company's senior director, says that a number of councils are "upbeat" about the proposals and that the target is achievable. "We have already got 13 schools in 12 months from a standing start."

Building large purpose-built schools with state-of-the-art facilities is going to be much cheaper than attempting to convert historic sites such as Sherfield. "We want to build 21st-century schools," says Bridger. "A large proportion of the independent sector is housed in historic buildings. But the maintained sector is now building some very exciting new environments and we think there is the opportunity to apply that to the private sector."

But the company has attracted controversy. Parents at its first UK school, Bury Lawn in Milton Keynes, objected after Gems took over the existing private school and increased class sizes from 15 to 24. Then it was revealed that a cigarette firm would sponsor Gems schools in Afghanistan.

The idea of affordable private education isn't new. The Tories' proposal for a "pupil passport" would in effect give every student a voucher worth the cost of a state education - around £5,000 a year. Pupils would be able to spend their voucher at any state school or at independent schools that charge no more than the value of the voucher. The Conservatives argue that this system would both increase choice and create a market for affordable private education.

The company, which already educates 40,000 children across the Gulf states, believes economies of scale will keep fees down. Administration and staff training are some of the areas that can be run across the company. Groups of schools have already pioneered the model championed by Gems. The Girls' Day School Trust is the UK's largest group of independent schools, educating 19,500 pupils in 25 schools in England and Wales, and charging between £5,000 and £7,000 a year.

But doubts remain about whether the Gems model can work. The average independent day school charges £7,287 a year, significantly more than the £5,000 budget schools. Independent schools' biggest cost is staff; how will the promised economies of scale result in genuinely lower fees when the schools still have to provide well-qualified staff?

"I think there is a great deal of scepticism about how it will work in practice," says Dick Davison, a spokesman for the Independent Schools Council. "In many senses their premium schools are not that different from the way a lot of schools are now. But I think there's a lot of interest in how they succeed at the bottom end."

There seems to be little that is radically different about Gems' schools educationally. But Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul's School, the London boys' school that topped the independent school GCSE league tables this summer, objects to schools being run for profit, as the Gems schools are. "I would rather that all fees be ploughed back into the school," he says. "That's been the success of the independent sector in the UK, which is essentially non-profit-making. If Gems could change the nature of the game, good luck to them."

Some people believe that the landscape of British private education is changing. Ryan Robson, who runs Sovereign Capital, a venture-capital company that bought out the Davies, Laing & Dick crammer. Many schools were founded by individuals after the Second World War, and their families are now looking to sell up, he says. "There is a succession issue in the UK at the moment," he told a recent conference of the Reform think tank. Robson believes that private schools are a good long-term investment for companies because there is a stable and growing demand.

Pat Preedy, a former head of a state primary school and now head of research, training and development at Gems, is evangelical in her enthusiasm for the company and argues that the sheer quality of its schools will guarantee success. "Ethos is like the yeti," she says. "You can't see it, but it leaves a footprint.

"When parents see these absolutely gorgeous facilities they won't be able to resist," she says. "The schools will succeed because they will provide a combination of quality education and wrap-around childcare that will appeal to modern parents.

"No expense has been spared," she says. "It's been an absolute dream."

The challenge for Gems is to attract the number of pupils needed to meet their ambitious goals. To succeed they must convince parents that they can provide all the attractions of a private education - small classes, state-of-the art facilities and extra- curricular activities - at a knock-down price. Only time will tell if that will work.