Cut-price private schools, Coca-Cola’s special ingredient and free movement, 1930s-style

James Tooley argues that by renting low-cost buildings and cutting out “frills”, private education can be brought within the means of many more families.

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Is it possible to educate a child for £2,700 a year, which is about half what the average child in a state school costs and barely a quarter of what even the cheapest private schools charge? Those are the fees for a new private school, just opened in Durham by James Tooley, a Newcastle University professor of education. He argues that by renting low-cost buildings, cutting out “frills” such as swimming pools and playing fields, recruiting young (and therefore cheap) teachers and increasing class sizes, private education can be brought within the means of many more families.

He aspires to launch similar schools across the English north-east, having already established a low-cost private school chain in Africa. He has sunk his savings into the project and expects to attract private investors. Is he insane? What works in developing countries, where public services are weak, underfunded and often corrupt, can’t work in Britain, can it?

I am not so sure. In a separate venture, another low-cost private school, albeit charging twice as much as Tooley’s, is planned for London. As the British state decays, private firms are moving even into policing (see previous columns). Private enterprise has a usually reliable nose for where it can make money. Thanks to the Tories’ obsession with creating quasi-markets, the state school system seems, to many parents, to be increasingly fragmented and chaotic. In urban areas, getting places in the “right” schools is a complex, headache-inducing process that may involve moving house or renting a flat in the appropriate catchment area. Some families may conclude that it’s simpler – and possibly cheaper – to write a cheque.

Absent without leaves

Coca-Cola, it is reported, is looking into producing a cannabis-infused beverage. But as every schoolchild knows, the original drink, invented in 1885 and advertised as a medicine that supposedly cured headaches, indigestion and other ailments, contained a different drug: cocaine. Such drugs were then unregulated in America as they were in Britain, where about half the population in Victorian times got high on laudanum, a cough suppressant that contained 10 per cent opium.

What later happened, as drugs were banned, is less well known. The company, which keeps the Coca-Cola recipe strictly secret, denies that the drink ever contained “added cocaine”. That much is true: Coca-Cola never had dollops of white powder in it. But it still contains “decocainised coca leaf extract”. A partner company has special exemption from US laws to import the leaves, provided it extracts the alkaloid used in purified cocaine powder and then either destroys it or sells it for approved medicinal products.

The harmless extract could be used for other consumer products such as tea. It would be a great boon to Peruvian coca farmers if it were. But Coca-Cola has a monopoly on those imported leaves. It is just one of many absurdities and hypocrisies created by the drug laws.

Boris’s campaign HQ

Strange happenings at the Daily Telegraph, which on 17 September, for the third Monday running, led its front page with a summary of Boris Johnson’s weekly column. Johnson doesn’t like Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” for Brexit, we learn. Is that news? To me, it looks more like propaganda for the former foreign secretary’s leadership campaign. For that, Johnson reportedly receives £275,000 a year. But here’s a question: should politicians be paid for their views by newspapers? After all, it’s more usual for advertisers to pay the newspapers.

Praise be for short plays

Almost every time I go to the theatre, I come out thinking that the play was at least 30 minutes too long. Allelujah!, Alan Bennett’s new play at the Bridge Theatre in London, set in an NHS geriatric ward, is an example. The first half drags, with no evident plot and no fully realised characters, just a succession of gags, most of them about old age and some not terribly original. I wondered, at the interval, whether it was worth staying and, judging by the mixed reviews, I suspect some critics didn’t. The tightly written second half, however, hits you with the force of a sledgehammer.

If plays lasted, say, 90 minutes – Allelujah! lasts 130 – they wouldn’t need intervals, and audiences could enjoy leisurely post-theatre dinners. In most cases, nothing of value would be lost except profits from overpriced drinks in theatre bars.

Commonwealth incomprehension

As well as short plays, I favour short books, so I opened a 76-page polemic about Britain, Lion and Lamb, by my old friend Mihir Bose. It turned out to contain an important insight into Brexit.

Bose argues that Britain doesn’t accept that there’s any such thing as a final goodbye. As it conceded independence to former colonies, it created the Commonwealth, a sort of daughter of empire. It initially allowed Commonwealth and empire citizens freedom of movement – exactly as the EU does now – but that was greatly modified once it became clear non-whites from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, not just whites from Australia, Canada etc, could take advantage. It later granted rights to vote in all national and local elections to citizens of any Commonwealth country resident in Britain, even on short-term visas. These rights, which survive to this day, have never been enjoyed by EU citizens unless they come from Malta or Cyprus, which happen to be in the Commonwealth – or Ireland, which isn’t in the Commonwealth but is another country that became independent from Britain but stayed semi-detached.

It takes an outsider, born in Calcutta, to notice how odd these arrangements are. Heaven knows what Brussels bureaucrats make of them. No wonder the Brexit negotiations often seem to flounder in mutual incomprehension.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war