Why I sent my child to a private school
When education journalist Janet Murray became a mother, her views on private schools changed. Here she explains why
Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d have a child at private school, I’d have laughed. I’d have said I resented parents buying privilege through private education.
That was before I became a parent. When my daughter, Katy, was about to turn three, I had a dilemma. Although we had a lovely childminder, I felt Katy needed to start mixing with other children in preparation for school. She was offered a place at the nursery attached to the primary school I had my eye on, but the two-hour daily sessions were not practical for me as a working mother. I did not want Katy to be shunted from nursery to carer. She’d had a difficult start in life, born almost three months early, weighing just over two and half pounds. She was a quiet child who often found new situations stressful, so I didn’t feel that was right for her.
Then I heard that the local prep school offered 8am-6pm hours and holiday care – something rare in state schools. On my first visit, I was struck by the welcoming atmosphere. The nursery manager made me a coffee and sat and talked to me about my child – a real contrast to other schools I’d seen. I felt Katy would be looked after here. I enrolled her immediately. The plan was to transfer her to our local “outstanding” state primary at five.
What I hadn’t appreciated was just how much the nursery was part of the school. Katy went to the main school for assemblies, and for lessons in French, music and IT. As she began to flourish, I started to get a sick feeling. How would she cope with transferring to the state primary school, which had almost as many pupils in a year group as the whole of Katy’s school? When the application forms for a school place came from the local authority, I threw them away.
Katy is now at the end of year 1 and, having spent her first year of school in a class of 11, is achieving way beyond expectations for her age. I don’t regret my decision one bit, but I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. There have been snide comments that have forced me to question some of my beliefs. I’ve been asked how I can reconcile writing about education for the Guardian with having a child at a private school. I remember reading about Diane Abbott’s decision to send her son to the £10,000-a-year City of London school. She said she was a mother first and a politician second, a point that resonated strongly with me.
While I am an “accidental” private school parent, deep down I don’t think I ever really had a problem with private education. It just didn’t seem socially acceptable to say so. In fact, as the first in my family to finish school with any formal qualifications – never mind go to university – I think I secretly always thought it was something to aspire to. Having escaped a coasting comprehensive for grammar school in my teens – an experience that opened my eyes to a different kind of future – I know first-hand how powerful education can be to individuals as a vehicle for social mobility.
When I walk Katy to school in her straw boater and blazer, I sometimes sense people – particularly other parents – judging me. But I wonder how many of them have engineered the system to get their child into the school they want.
By sending your child to private school, you are using the means you have – money – to get the right education for your child. But the state sector is full of parents buying advantage. They kid themselves that what they are doing is somehow morally superior. The truth is that every person who moves house to get into a catchment area is playing the system. So are those who pay private tutors, or consultants to help with school appeals (both booming businesses). Parents who suddenly discover a faith in God to get their children into a certain school are lying and cheating. There will be people reading this – including some loyal Education Guardian readers – who have done some or all of these things.
The fact is that for every parent who plays the system to get their child into a top school, a child from a less advantaged background is likely to lose out. At least I am not limiting anyone else’s choice.
Many friends have confessed that if they had enough money – or weren’t happy with what their local state school had to offer – they would consider private education. Curiously, most still profess to oppose fee-paying schools.
And I’m inclined to agree to with the historian Niall Ferguson, who argued in the recent BBC Reith lectures that the UK would benefit from more private education institutions as greater competition would incentivise the state sector to up its game. After all, he says, “Nobody is going to pay between £10,000 and £30,000 a year for an education that is just a wee bit better than the free option.”
I believe social mobility is about giving more young people access to privilege – not taking it away from those who have it. The comprehensive system is built on the premise that every child has the same needs – an attitude that encourages mediocrity. Bright children who enjoy academic learning deserve the chance to be educated with like-minded peers. So I think the Sutton Trust charity is right to call for the return of state-funded places at independent schools (a practice abolished by the Labour government of the late 1990s) giving more children from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to learn at schools ranked among the best in the world. It’s not about elitism or separating sheep from goats. It’s about recognising that all children are different and that academic qualifications are not the only route to success. Not every child sees a traditional, academic education as a privilege. Many would far rather go to a school that offers high-quality technical and vocational education that meets their needs and interests. With schools under increasing pressure to meet targets and boost their performance in league tables, not nearly enough is being done to meet the needs of these students.
And the argument that shutting down private schools would create a more equal education system seems flawed to me. Supporters of this idea often point to the example of Finland, which abolished private schools in the 1970s. In this country, with our complex social class structure and one of the biggest pay gaps between rich and poor in the world, abolishing private schools would mean the most affluent would simply create their own “elite” within the state system, paying a premium for properties near good schools, pushing house prices up and lower earners out of the catchment area. If housing statistics are anything to go by (latest figures from the property website primelocation.com show that the prices of homes near good schools can be inflated by up to £92,000), many are already doing this.
I’ve visited countless schools over the years, and what has always struck me about private schools is that while each one has a slightly different feel, underpinning that are always strong discipline, high standards and a healthy sense of competition – qualities many would argue are also features of successful state schools.
But what really matters is size – and this is where the state sector is still getting it wrong. I spent four years teaching English in secondary schools, and the most powerful lesson I learned was that what all pupils really need is time and attention. They want their teachers to know they love skateboarding, play basketball or sing in a choir. In large classes in sprawling schools, many feel anonymous, which often contributes to poor performance and behaviour. When I was teaching, up to 200 children a week passed through my classroom, and while I made strong connections with some, there were many more I failed because I didn’t have the time to find out what really made them tick.
There is no doubt that my daughter’s school could do with some updating. In fact, its facilities are a poor match for local state schools, but the reason it fares better in the league tables is because resources are directed where they are needed most – at teaching and learning.
The coalition government’s free schools programme (which allows parents, teachers and others to set up schools), though not perfect by any means, is an attempt to take the best bits from the independent sector and reproduce them in state schools. Many free schools promise smaller class sizes and longer opening hours. A free school in Norwich, for example, is open six days a week, 51 weeks a year. This is what more state schools should be doing.
I plan to send Katy to a state secondary if I can, but if I find myself dissatisfied with what is on offer, I will go private again. Until local schools meet families’ needs and cater for each individual child, can you blame people for putting their hand in their pocket?