Are private schools worth the sheer expense?

Iona Bain

When I was approached to write my first book on managing money, I was keen to discuss not only the day-to-day budget drains we all encounter but the bigger items of expenditure too.

So naturally I wanted to tackle not only the soft targets (gym subscription, yawn) but the big noisy elephants in the room that we can ignore when wondering how to spend our money. That’s why I spent much time considering the following question; why do so many families spend tens of thousands of pounds on private school fees when much evidence suggests that this will not automatically make their children better qualified or equipped to deal with the real world?

In the end, I didn’t have the opportunity to tackle this tricky subject, but every week I see an article or have an experience that further convinces me that state school pupils are catching up and, in many cases, taking over their private school counterparts in the races that really count in life.

I say “races” because I think we’re now developing multiple, more subtle definitions of what “success” is. Tal Ben-Shahar, the noted Havard academic who specialises in happiness, cleverly elucidated the deep flaws of aiming for superficial success in his book “Happier”. He concurs with most experts and philosophers from down the ages by concluding that ‘happiness’ is a journey, not a destination, and that it is a delicate balance between being happy and content with what you have now as well as having forward-thinking aims and plans for the future. He also reminds us throughout the book that the way we view success in life is intimately bound up with our education; it shines through in how we approach our career, our life, our relationships and even our money.

Earlier this year, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, warned that private schools are all too often churning out “identikit” pupils who are being conditioned to copy their parents’ mainstream affluent desires, with all the rigidity and deindividuation that entails.

She told the Headmasters and Headmistress Conference in St Andrews that youngsters were not only going to the same universities as their parents but studying the same subjects as well.

“I worry about a little sub-section of society which is sleepwalking through an identikit education experience into an off-the-peg life which mirrors what generations of the affluent classes have aspired to.”

Critics might ask – what is wrong with that? If these youngsters go onto to earn a good wage, live in a nice house in an affluent part of the country and do a necessary, worthwhile job, surely private schools can consider their job well and truly done.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Such a picture of cosy contentment may seem appealing but is it in touch with the real desires and talents of many young people? Could the culture of private schools be hemming in a significant proportion of the young population with stale conventions rather than encouraging them to think for themselves and be a little different?

Mrs Curnock Cook seems to think so. She wisely points out that there is a whole raft of so-called “new economy” subjects that are drawing in many more state school pupils.

“The future is not what it used to be – the new sciences, digital economy, digital and creative industries have changed the shape of employment.”

But pupils at independent schools only go onto study a very small group of subjects – 1,500 out of a total pool of 30,000 across the country. While more than a quarter of state school pupils study new economy subjects like software engineering, artificial intelligence and biotech, just 13 per cent of their peers in the independent sector do the same.

Mrs Curnock Cook argued that medicine, law, financial services and the media are not the only games in town, suggesting such paths are not always the right choices for young people. Moreover, the consequences of a factory-line private education means many professional firms had a “narrow” workforce that held them back. She added: “Perhaps instead of worrying about social engineering, independent schools should think about encouraging their students to be independent-minded and to develop a sense of future self that just breaks the mould a bit.”

Another indication that private schools may not be what they’re cracked up to be is an astonishing rise in the number of their pupils getting extra lessons outside of school. Recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that pupils at independent schools are twice as likely to be privately tutored compared to state school pupils. Of course, this is partly down to wealthy parents spraying the cash around but are some of them actually trying to shore up very visible cracks in their child’s education at critical points?

The future is also pointing towards a greater acceptance of state school pupils at top universities. It has been pointed out ‘positive discrimination’ at top universities is a myth and that state school pupils are no more likely to get into Oxford or Cambridge than their private counterparts. I’m not so sure. There continues to be huge political pressure on universities to widen access and this year, Oxford has enrolled its highest number of state school pupils yet. When you look closely at those enrolment figures, around half come from good grammar schools, where middle class parents have taken the decision to pay for some one-off tutoring around the 11-plus exam rather than fork out for astronomical private school fees for the best part of a decade. While this might not suggest a huge leap forward for social mobility, it does suggest that grammar schools are becoming an eminently more realistic option than private education for many families.

For sure, there has been in past decades a very cosy relationship between some private schools and Oxbridge. A decade ago, a girl I knew from a very well-to-do school did not get sufficient grades to take up her Oxford place but instead of her place being handed to someone who had met all the criteria, her place was deferred for a year to give her time to ace the one or two exams she had previously flunked. How fair was that?

But times were changing even then in 2006. I also took up a place at Oxford having gone to an ordinary state school in Edinburgh. I was lucky to receive state-sponsored music lessons courtesy of the City of Edinburgh music school and I was able to take A-level music a year early in one year, all of which spurred me on to apply for music. My motivation wasn’t bragging rights on my CV or because I wanted to walk into a top job; I wanted to study music at a high level in a challenging, stimulating environment and have the chance to attend one of the most renowned universities in the world.

The numbers of pupils who had previously been to Oxbridge from Broughton could have been counted on the fingers of one, maybe two hands. But since then, there has been a steady stream of applicants to all kinds of good universities. By contrast, I know of privately educated pupils who have struggled to get onto good degree courses or find promising apprenticeships and meaningful careers, despite the endless tutoring, hockey matches and Mongolian nose flute lessons. More importantly, however, I find that the happiest and most fulfilled people I know happen to have attended state schools, where things didn’t always go their own way and barriers had to be overcome. Ben-Shahar explains: “Educators, especially parents, confuse struggle with pain; wanting to protect their children from pain, they cater to their children’s every wish and rescue them from every challenge. In trying to provide a “privileged” life for their children, these parents deny them the opportunity to struggle, thereby keeping them from experiencing flow as well as the satisfaction of overcoming challenges.”

Of course, state schools urgently need require proper public investment to keep getting better, particularly if they are to stand their ground against grammar schools re-introduced by Theresa May. And some will always struggle to match the sheer resources lying within our most gilded private schools. But since the annual average fees of private schools have doubled in the last thirteen years, we have also seen the demise of several independent schools altogether (particularly outside of London) and the percentage of children attending such schools has slipped 4.8 per cent in the past decade. Many middle class families who are squeezed out wonder whether the state alternative is really all that bad. The worm may finally be turning…

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