State schools can be brilliant too
By Connie Meades
If I had a pound for every time a parent told me they chose a private school for their child because ‘our children’s education is our priority’, I would probably be rich enough to send my own children to an independent school. If I wanted to, that is.
My children’s education is our family’s priority too. It’s just that we have opted for the state sector. That’s right, we have gone through a similar decision making and shortlisting process and we landed on a comprehensive school (and before that, our local primary school) as the best contender.
In our case, we couldn’t afford the independent sector. But we wouldn’t have selected a private school even if we had won the lottery. We decided on our local comprehensive for many reasons – it is widely known as one of the best schools in the area; the children get to make friendships with people from all backgrounds and beliefs; not a day goes by when understanding and respect aren’t reinforced; our children can walk to school with their friends (just to name a few) - and getting a place there felt like our lottery win.
I am tired of hearing parents (at schools I visit, as well as in in my social circles) implying or even declaring that state schools are inevitably inferior to fee-paying schools. We need to stop thinking of independent education as the top tier. Neither sector is necessarily better than the other – they both have their pros and cons, and more importantly so do the schools within each sector.
Let’s take the most commonly held assumption that private schools always perform better than government ones. Eighty-nine per cent of state schools were judged good or outstanding in 2017, with less tolerance than ever for excuses for failure. And it’s not just Ofsted that support higher standards – so do trade unions. Governance, leadership, incentives and teaching have all markedly improved in the state sector. In fact, according to research last year from UCL Institute of Education, state schools in Britain are often better managed than private schools. In our own Guide, state schools are increasingly being added as we see for ourselves the dazzling educational opportunities that many are providing.
In geographical areas where state schools shine, private schools often sell themselves on the extras – music, drama, arts and sports. But judging from the quality of the extra-curricular in the state schools we review, there’s no clear divide here either. The same can be said for SEN, with our education consultants reporting good and bad across both sectors. Even the argument around smaller class sizes doesn’t wash with me – this issue is far more complex than most people give it credit for and it is clear from recent research, as well as the schools we visit, that some schools with large classes do no worse when it comes to academic achievement than those with much smaller classes. More than once, parents who opted for the independent sector have told me they wish there were more children in their class as their offspring suffers from limited friendship options.
Nobody is suggesting that state schools are perfect or even better per se. Some are on their knees and nearly all are under-resourced. And then there’s the legacy of Gove’s radical education interventions, including reducing the national curriculum to what is most easily measurable and lowering teachers’ morale. On a more micro level, looking at our (Ofsted outstanding) secondary school as an example, there is one Senco shared across two schools, the sport is elitist and more children fall through the cracks than I’d realised.
No wonder, you might conclude, that I increasingly hear from local independent sector heads of parents working ever longer hours to stump up the cash to send them to private schools instead. But who’s to say you won’t have the same (or a different set of) problems and then you’ll have wound up spending less time with your own kids in order to afford an education that may ultimately be no better?
Clearly, independent schools can be marvellous. Let’s face it, children who go to private schools are more likely to go to a good university (seven times more likely to get into Oxbridge and twice as likely to take a place at Russell Group universities, according to research last year). And private schools have more freedom to introduce ways of teaching and learning that often make bring joy and confidence to their pupils in unique ways. In some cases, if you could bottle it up, you would. Facilities can be terrific too, often (but not necessarily) outshining their state contemporaries. And then there are bursaries – a step in the right direction to make independent schools more accessible to those who can’t afford them.
In short, I see examples of education at its best in private schools, just as I do in state schools, both of which I spend much of my working life in. But do I see more examples of brilliance in private schools? No, I don’t..