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Jul 28 / Caro

Are we the Kind of Parents Who…

…Would send our child to a private school?

(tl;dr We’re sending our son to a private school. I hope that you won’t judge me for that, but I know many people will. Below lies an explanation for our choice, and why I feel that calling private education “unfair” is unfair in itself. We’re doing this because it is the right school for our son, and because we’re in the fortunate position – through hard work – to be able to make that choice. I don’t think private education is always “better” nor that there is necessarily anything wrong with a state education, this is just what is right for us.)

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I’ve known, ever since I first tried to write a post about school choices for Thomas, that I was going to find it hard. As hard as the decisions have been to make themselves. Yet whilst it’s obvious that deciding on what is best for at least seven years of our child’s life and their start in education is a tough parenting milestone, sharing those decisions should surely be easier, right?

Yet it turns out than in making choices that have turned out to be far from straightforward, I’ve had to examine myself and my personal beliefs and challenge the pre-determined assumptions I had about this stage of family life. And now I’m afraid to try and share all of that in a way that won’t make people judge me, or think badly of me, or – worst of all – make me doubt myself by challenging these hard thought out plans and my reasons for them. It turns out that whilst I’m very happy in life to be myself and do what I feel is right, I still have lingering issues with sharing the aspects of me and our life and beliefs that I feel may go against the grain, or invite questioning or criticism. I guess that I still, after all this time, care too much what other people think of me. Ironic, for a blogger, no?

But with change so imminently on the horizon – next week to be exact – it’s time I was honest. I know there will be judgement both of me but also, probably throughout his life, of Thomas because of the decision we have made for him. I know that when it comes to private education there are the supporters, the people who are doing the same and will get where I’m coming from plus the ones who will tell me they wish they could do the same, but circumstances prevent it. Then there are the haters. The ones who believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity in education, that it’s elitist, exclusive and detracts from opportunity for all (and that that is just for starters).

But it is the choice we have made for our only son.

I understand so many of the arguments against private education, but I believe that our choice, in our circumstance, is solid. And given that we will likely face ongoing questioning for it, now is the time to try and get comfortable with that.

Believe me, I never saw this coming. I’m from a decidedly middle class background, but I did not go to a prep school despite the availability of good ones locally. I didn’t imagine that we would send a child to a private school. I certainly never saw private education as “better” because I flourished in the state education system. Ian, on the other hand, attended a private school which he did not enjoy and which did not particularly support his natural aptitudes. Hardly a glowing endorsement. Add to that the fact that I’ve been exposed to plenty of the very worst that public schools can turn out and it’s not much wonder I never had a particular burning desire to put my own children in to the system. And “children” it would have been, had life dealt us a different hand. We’re financially secure thanks to hard work, but that almost certainly wouldn’t have stretched to three concurrent sets of school fees per year.

I can’t quite remember now exactly when we began to re-evaluate. I’m sure that it was during our infertility struggles when we began to realise that life was going to look quite different to how we had hoped. That, and the issues with availability of school places in our town being a constant topic of conversation amongst local parents – from the maternity ward onwards – it was hard not to give it some serious thought.

One of the chief arguments that comes up against private education is that it’s wrong to remove your child from the state system just because you don’t like it. It is more politically correct to remain within the system and change it from the inside out whilst preserving its funding. And I can see that can be quite true for areas with poor educational provision and undersubscribed schools whose funding is dependent on getting as many bums on seats as possible.

But what about areas like ours? We live a few hundred yards from a very good primary school and well under half a mile from another outstanding one. Both are horrendously oversubscribed. So let me make it clear that I have absolutely no issue with the schools that are potentially available to us, or with state education in general, it’s just that in all likelihood those schools won’t be available to us. Obviously things change from year to year, but two years ago we would have secured neither of our closest two schools, and this year we would have secured one by virtue of the local authority forcing them to take a “bulge” year – another issue in itself!

I don’t want to be the parent scrabbling around for a place at the last minute, or facing putting my child in a council-funded taxi to go to one of the outlying village schools which has a place. Nor do I want to be the parent that rushes in to a private school place simply because I don’t like what we are allocated. I wanted to go in to this calmly, with eyes wide open. I wanted to feel I was actually making a decision, not having my hand forced.

The bottom line is that removing my child from the state education system will have absolutely no effect on the funding available to any of those schools (because they will be full anyway) and, best case, it may release a place to someone who is not so fortunate to have alternative options. It may prevent one other person having to travel miles to the nearest available school and actually make a positive impact on that child’s, and family’s experience of primary education.

That last point sits at odds with what a lot of people feel about private education. They think that paying for an education is an unfair advantage because it’s not available to all, rather than seeing it as potentially opening up better opportunities for those without a choice. Development in our town continues apace, and alongside a baby-boom, the squeeze in school places shows no signs of abating. I can say in good conscience that not requiring a state funded school place can only be a helpful thing to the overall situation.

But yes, I have to agree that a private education may present advantages over a state education – although, not always, as it didn’t for my husband. It will almost certainly be better resourced with smaller classes and different opportunities, perhaps most importantly free from the rigidity of a government imposed curriculum and incessant assessment. But is it really “unfair” that we can access that?

We’re fortunate that we can afford it because we’ve worked bloody hard ourselves, all of our lives. I find the notion of it being unfair that some children gain advantages simply by virtue of their birth frankly absurd, as well as insulting. What have I been working hard for all this time of not to give my family the best that I can? Why do we talk of social mobility and closing inequality if not for that very reason – to help more people achieve just that. See, it’s not as selfish as it sounds. It’s not about “buying” the best for my child and sod everyone else. A good, appropriate and personalised education sets a person up to potentially contribute well to the world for the rest of their life. Isn’t that what we all want?

People that feel private education is fundamentally unfair are usually those who believe that education should be an absolutely level playing field for all. And in theory, I agree with that too. Everyone should be able to access a good quality education. It would aid social mobility and potentially help end so many inequalities. I know all these things. But sadly we do need to accept that education will never be a level playing field, no matter what we can achieve with “the system”. Because even if all schools were identical, and all lessons taught by clones with outstanding passion and ability there are many things that can never be the same. Most importantly children are not the same. So what suits one will not suit another. And everything that happens outside the door of the classroom is not level. If you hate the idea of variation in education, or streaming or anything that supposedly gives your child an “advantage” then I hope you don’t read with them at home. Or discuss their homework with them. Or support them by taking them to the library. Or on days out to bring their history lessons alive. Because millions of children don’t have that advantage of a supportive environment at home. They can’t get help with their homework. Yes, that’s a tragedy, but I don’t believe for a second that it means we should stop helping our own kids, otherwise who will be there to be the supporters of the next generation? Who will be the thought leaders who just might be able to get us out of the mess we’re currently in? Because if we try to level the playing field, inevitably it will fall to the lowest common denominator, and that does absolutely everybody a disservice, now and in the future.

Of course, you don’t have to go to a private school to end up being a strong contributor to society. Indeed It can be argued that many who go to “public” schools or independent secondaries aren’t the best contributors at all (see also: what got this country into such a mess in the first place). This isn’t as simple as private vs state education. What I’m getting at, and what really, really matters is that kids get the education that is right for them. It won’t – can’t – be the same for every child. And this is actually the single most important factor in our decision to send Thomas where he is going.

It’s also my biggest single criticism of the current state education system in this country. It often tries too hard to make things too level. There is too little room for manoeuvre and individualised targets or even differing learning styles. Children are too often seem as commodities to be pushed through, not as individuals. Living in Kent, a spiritual home of the Grammar School, and having attended one myself, I’m intimately familiar with how devisive their presence can be. And I agree that in the current set up they tend to be elitist and create unnecessary division, but that is simply because it’s a bit of an all-or-nothing affair. The alternatives, if you don’t go to grammar, are often not brilliant. But unlike a lot of detractors, I don’t think this is an argument against selective education. I think it’s an argument against the current system. Grammar schools are absolutely right and appropriate for a sub-section of the population who are academically oriented. What is needed is not “comprehensive” education for all, but selective education for all. There needs to be a variety of different types of schools that are properly focused on the wide variety of children that pass through them, catering for the creative as well as the academic, and for different types of learning style. I firmly believe that no one school can do it all, but each child has a right to attend a school that can cater for them (in order to curb length here, we’ll leave aside the difficult practicalities of such an approach for now, it’s simply a philosophy.)

With all of that in mind, we’ve chosen a school that we believe will suit Thomas. We haven’t picked a private school, as some people do (and others believe everyone does), in order to increase Thomas’s chances of gaining a grammar school place. In fact, we deliberately discounted any schools that assessed three year olds prior to entry. We picked our chosen school partly because it doesn’t enter every child for the 11+ (or Common Entrance). In fact, it’s a school that lost favour with some local parents in recent years because it doesn’t have a 100% 11+ pass rate. I see that as a good thing. It means I can be confident that they will suggest what is actually best for my child, not what is good for their figures (the same cannot be said for certain local state schools!)

We’ve also chosen the school because it’s small, with a real family feel that will absolutely suit him. Thomas is a typical young boy. He is hopeless in large groups, where he runs around and becomes the class clown, preferring to attract attention and laughs rather than concentrate. In a small group he is a different boy. Focused, determined, interested, curious and inquisitive. He seeks out one-to-one interaction however he can. He is a boy that could so easily be lost in a class of thirty children. He could so easily be labelled as a troublemaker or a joker, and slip between the cracks. The environment of his school will – hopefully – guard against that.

The fact that we can move him now, in to their preschool, is also a huge advantage. Thomas is already very ready for the learning aspects of school, despite not being old enough to start reception until next September. He can already read, races through simple mathematical problems and most of all wants to find out about things. He’s eager to learn and excited by it. But socially, and emotionally, he has a way to go. Normal, of course, for a year away from school start, but spending the next year in what will become his school environment will be an enormous help. Playtime will be shared with older children, and lunch will be eaten in the dinner hall. They “borrow” classrooms when older children are away swimming, in order to really get a feel for what “big school” is about and ease that transition. Why would I not want that for my child?

So this is where we are.

I’m not sure who I thought were the “type” of parents to send their children to private schools. I guess I was guilty of stereotyping, assuming it was “rich” people or simply people who are not like us, although I’m not sure why. The impression that I now have is that a huge variety of people make this choice for a huge variety of reasons. I don’t necessarily identify with all the reasons people have, but I’m totally comfortable with ours.

We have, and will only have one child. I want what is right for him. It won’t make him better than anyone else, but hopefully it will help him be the best version of himself that he can. I simply can’t apologise for that.

And so, I guess, it turns out that we are the type of parents who send their child to a private school.

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One Comment

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  1. Carie / Jul 30 2015

    Good for you. It’s clearly a decision that you thought long and hard about and a school that will really suit Thomas. When we were considering schools for Kitty we looked at our village state school (good reputation, usually hugely oversubscribed), the nearest private school (to compare apples and oranges and see what difference fees actually makes) and a Steiner Waldorf school. The last was too far away to be realistic for us and the other two, we just really liked the state school best so that’s where she’s going. I was privately educated the whole way through, because my father taught there and I had a scholarship and I wouldn’t change it for the whole world. Even with reduced fees it was a gift my parents worked hard to give to me and I’m very grateful that they did.
    Obviously I don’t have a problem with private school and I’m very suspect of the ‘change from the inside out’ argument – if the school places lottery tells you anything is that there will always be manipulation of the system, e.g. by buying into a catchment area; the pupils currently going to Eton aren’t suddenly going to go to Tower Hamlets. And given that parents don’t pay in any more or less in taxes etc based on their child’s schooling, I think the funding argument doesn’t wash either; banning private education would simply require more children to be educated from the same pot of funds.

    It’s a bit like the one that says higher taxes = more money; higher taxes = richer tax lawyers!

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