Is Self Directed Education Uneconomic? By Dr Ian Cunningham

Large scale education

The main defence of traditional large-scale schooling is that it is necessary to bring together large groups of young people in these settings so that they can be effectively prepared for their future roles in society. The inconvenient evidence is that all the research on adults as to what makes them effective as human beings, including effectiveness at work, shows that the sum total of all education – school, college, university, and including training, courses – accounts for no more than about 10 to 20% of what makes a person an effective human being within the social context in which they operate. In other words, school is incredibly inefficient in its own claimed raison d’être (see Cunningham, 2021).

Balanced against this is the research evidence on participants in self directed settings, which shows that the learning in such settings has contributed to them being able to become effective human beings. In addition to thinking about cost, we have to think about cost effectiveness and here again the traditional institutional model of education fails.

An interesting case is the USA and particularly Arizona. Arizona K-12 schools spend $8,770 per pupil for a total of $9,827,893,000 annually. Arizona now provides vouchers of up to $7,000 for parents to spend these outside the state (public) schools. This money can be spent on homeschooling and on micro-schools – many of which are closer to a self directed mode. Interestingly major support for this change has come from black parent groups. Clearly the state saves significant costs by moving in this direction and other states have been making the same moves – for example New Hampshire. (1)

School measures of success are what are called by some scholars ‘intermediate measures’, namely just looking at exam passes. What isn’t measured is the espoused ultimate goal of education, which is that ability to lead a good/effective life within one’s own society. On this score it’s clear that institutional education is not cost effective.

The above claims are valid across various countries. Closer to home (mine) is some evidence from the UK.

For instance, over half of all prisoners are functionally illiterate and in prison mainly because of the failure of schooling. This is a huge social cost. Also, it is possible that up to 9 million other adults have major literacy problems. We can add this to the cost of schools causing mental illness. For instance, due to levels of bullying and violence the calls on adult mental health services are increased by the nature of institutional schooling. This is evidence from the USA also (Cunningham, 2021).

Self directed education can’t work?

The next claim made by many supporters of traditional schooling-based education is that self directed approaches may be an interesting side-line, but it’s not possible to operate a whole education system based on this model. My case is that they are completely wrong and that it’s actually socially and economically essential to reconfigure existing education away from the schooling model.

Some simple figures will do as a start point. In England the per pupil funding allocated to state schools for 5 to 16-year-old pupils is £6,970 per pupil (2). At Self Managed Learning College it costs us under £4500 per student per annum. (Our College operates as a learning community with no curriculum, no classrooms, no imposed timetable, no uniforms, and freedom for our 65  9-16 year old students to learn whatever they want and in any way that they want.)

The disparity with state schools is even greater than at first glance in that state schools get given property for free – capital costs are written off. We have to pay a significant rental fee for our premises, which if that was removed would reduce our costs well below £4,000 per student per annum.

Also noteworthy is a British Government suggestion that the best way for children to catch up on what they might have missed during the Covid pandemic is to use individual tutors, rather than increased classroom use. The independent use of one-to-one tutors by parents who send their children to school is extensive and appears to be growing. So, even within the school system, many parents are aware that there are better ways to learn than in the standard classroom. Reith Lecturer Stuart Russell affirmed this in one of his 2021 lectures on Living with Artificial Intelligence:

“We know for example that if you tutor a child individually and you have a skilled human tutor, they can learn about three times as much as they do in a normal classroom…”

Russell, 2021

Whilst this approach on its own is not necessarily self directed it points to the need to recognise that each child is different – and that fact has to be a sine qua non of any realistic educational model.

Turning to other European countries we can see similar costings to England. For instance a new self directed school in Spain is working to a per student per annum cost of 3560 Euros compared with state schools on 8259 Euros. (3) When a school can dispense with the features of classroom-based, imposed lessons there can be significant cost savings.

Learning communities and size

What we have seen is a growth in small self directed learning communities around the world. One element of their appeal to parents and young people is small size and working as a democratic community. Size matters and this has been used as a case against such learning communities – namely that they are bound to be uneconomic.

There has been a significant amount of research and exploration on the issue of the size of schools. Part of the problem with much of the research is what is defined as small or large. I am convinced by anthropological evidence and the work of people like Robin Dunbar (see Grauer and Ryan, 2016) that around 150 is the magic number. It’s a magic number for the size of a learning community that can operate in a humane way. Given that adults would be involved, it probably means that the maximum for learners is below 120. Much of the research clearly does not look at schools of that small size. For example, many studies regard 500 – 600 a small size school. I do not.

The key issue here is more about having an educational setting which I have heard described as one where:

every adult knows every child;

every child knows every adult and,

every child knows every other child.

In such settings, it does seem from the research that there are significant benefits which include learners feeling more engaged with the school; teachers and students being happier and feeling positive about the climate of the school; there is less violent behaviour and bullying; and in a properly designed setting costs can actually be lower, rather than the claimed economies of scale in large schools. Attendance also seems better in smaller settings and there is a potential better attainment and progression of learning, though we should not fall into the trap of just judging school on exam passes (Grauer and Ryan, 2016).

The average secondary school in the UK is much much larger than the 150 maximum. In such schools, which are typically more than 1000, the average teacher sees about 250 students each week (Wetz, 2009). It is not possible to know 250 people well. This is the conclusion of Dunbar’s research and that of anthropologists studying hunter gatherer bands and similar small communities.

The other feature of the research is that we have to look at the issue of having small learning communities where, as Wetz points out, relationships are at their heart. This means that small on its own is not something to be valued. Small schools can be created with a hierarchy and an authoritarian style of teaching. In such settings the advantages that have been identified for smallness do not seem to manifest themselves.


There is incontrovertible evidence of the lack of cost effectiveness of traditional schooling. No amount of tidying up such schools will suffice to do justice to the needs of children. The case against radical self directed learning communities does not stand up to examination, given that the need is for cost effectiveness in education. Socio economic factors favour radical change.

The problem that we have is similar to that of the physics professor who opined that there are two problems with quantum theory.

  1. It accounts for all the available evidence.
  2. It makes no sense.

What I am suggesting is that we face the same problem in our self directed learning communities. Such communities respond to all the available evidence on learning. However for those embedded in the current schooling model, they don’t make sense. An approach based on freedom to learn doesn’t fit in a world that says enforced teaching and control is the only way.


  1. U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics [2022].


Cunningham, I. (2021) Self Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm. London: Routledge.

Grauer, S. and Ryan, C. (2016) ‘Small Schools: the myths and reality, and potential of small schools’. (Human Scale Education is also a good UK site for information on small schools and their value.)

Russell, S., The Reith Lectures. 2021. Living With Artificial Intelligence. Accessed July 17th, 2022.

Wetz, J. (2009) Urban Village Schools. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

About Dr Ian Cunningham

Dr Cunningham is the founder and Chair of Governors at Self Managed Learning College (SMLC) in Sussex, and author of Self Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm.

SMLC is part of the educational charity, Centre for Self Managed Learning and they have been providing educational programmes for young people aged 9-17 for 18 years. The College is a self-directed, democratic, freedom-orientated learning community.

You can read an interview with Dr Ian Cunningham in our Voices section here.