To start with, I must make it clear that I work and was educated in the state sector. I have no problem whatsoever with the private sector. Each to their own, quite literally. School is, in my view, simply the icing on the cake and the school a child attends makes very little difference to their educational outcomes when compared to family and community. If you want to pay £10,000 a year for a child's education, you go for it. Your child will get to the same place, more or less, that they would have got to had they been in the state sector, and when they get to university, they'll meet the people they would have shared school with had they not had their education paid for.
What I do dislike intensely are the myths about selective education which are founded on little or no factual evidence. It is particularly galling to hear comprehensive schools being denigrated by those who claim private schools are somehow intrinsically superior, for reasons which are entirely spurious and have no basis in fact. I have no idea if this annoys those who work in the private sector as much as it irks their public sector colleagues, but I’d love to hear what you think if you do teach children who pay your wages directly.
Incidentally, I prefer to label schools which charge fees as commercial schools rather than Public, Private or Independent. They are commercial enterprises, trying to make money. And they make a lot more sense when you think of them that way rather than as part of some kind of benevolent service industry.
Myth 1 – Commercial schools are somehow inherently better than government schools
Sarah Vine blithely states that ‘Of course the parents of private school children are paying for the best teachers and facilities’. These interlinked ideas annoy me tremendously, because they get trotted out all the time as if they were, somehow, obviously true. Which they clearly aren’t, as a moment's thought will tell you. If it isn't obvious to you, you do have to ask where exactly the evidence for either of these statements might be found. There is simply no research to back up these myths.
The idea that somehow the ‘best teachers’ all choose to work in the commercial sector is clearly questionable on many, many levels. Given that most people in the country have no direct experience of schools which you have to pay for, it’s reasonable to assume that most teachers in the country have no experience of the private education sector either.
And given that 93% or so of the country’s teachers are not working in the private sector, it’s a fairly big assumption to say that the ‘best’ teachers have all chosen to seek employment in such a small coterie of schools. It’s a myth with no basis in reality, and an insult to everyone’s intelligence.
The massive investment in state schools in England may have escaped the notice of many people. If you haven’t been in a state school in the last twenty years, you may be surprised how much schools have changed. As those of us who work in state schools will happily tell you, it’s rare to find a classroom without all kinds of electronica, and the state schools I have worked in have not struggled to maintain, replace and develop the resources they need. My current school is awash with all manner of expensive stuff.
Yes, the big commercial schools can boast of expensive swimming pools, theatres and athletic facilities. But these schools are businesses, and facilities such as these are effectively part of their marketing budget. They have to compete for the education dollar, and buying shiny stuff which looks good in pictures and on open days makes commercial sense, even if each child at the school rarely uses them.
Many state schools have more than enough to be getting on with, and more than enough to allow teachers to teach and children to learn. After all, you don’t need expensive toys to expand young minds.
Myth 2 – Commercial schools have ‘cleverer/nicer/easier’ kids
‘But let’s be honest: they’re also paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids,’ says Ms Vine, who then goes on to admit that when she was at a fee-paying school, she broke rules and stole stuff. There are umpteen other examples of fee-paying kids getting into trouble.
The thing is, families choosing to pay for their education because they believe that there will be a mix of the ‘right kinds of kids’ tend to overlook some salient facts, particularly at secondary level. Firstly, a good proportion of adolescents are likely to go off the rails, and the better off you are, the more options you have to really jump the shark.
Secondly, who says that commercial schools are full of high flying children? Lots of the children who transferred from my state school to local fee-paying establishments did so because they couldn’t hack our school, and their parents seemed to have decided to throw money at the problem and spend what they had ear marked for university early to try to help their children.
There is an argument that children who like school often do well, and that virtuous circle means that keen children tend to learn along side other keen children, whichever school you are in. Likewise, those who find school hard tend to be with those in the same boat, and by secondary school any school is effectively a number of mini-schools with the keen learners and the disaffected lower achievers largely existing in separate worlds; in my state school we had three streams after the age of 14 and we barely met those outside our stream. Friends tell me fee-paying schools are largely the same.
What's more, there are many parents with high aspirations for their children who think that they are buying advantage for their offspring by paying £10,000 a year in the commercial sector - the fabled 'I work as a bin man and send my children to a fee paying school' beloved of the Daily Mail. They hope that the school will help their perfectly ordinary children to become high flyers because they recognise that they aren’t that smart to start with.
A third point is that many fee-paying schools will take whoever offers to stump up the cash; there is often little or no filter for intelligence and ability. They may not let them take any public examinations, of course, but that’s another story…
Myth 3 – Selective State schools are somehow more socially acceptable than commercial schools
No they aren’t. Or at least they shouldn’t be. They are nearly always worse when it comes to equal access. Whilst you can simply buy your way into most commercial schools by paying fees (and by paying for intense tutoring to enable your children to pass entrance exams, if needs be), you’ve got to make a real effort to get your child into a selective state school. As a result, selective state schools are in England are hopelessly socially exclusive, whether they select by religion, 11+ exam, house price or some sort of gerrymandering as typified by Grey Coat School. They enable parents to socially exclude the poor; a particularly galling mis-use of public money since, as Chris Cook will tell you, the children of the well-off do well wherever they go to school. Yes, well off kids do well at even ‘Sinkhouse High’, Sarah Vine, not that you’d ever let your children find out.
For some data, have a look at the Fair Admissions Campaign’s excellent website. See what it says about places like Grey Coat School, where the Gove’s have secured a socially exclusive education for their child. It’s in the 1% least socio-economically inclusive schools on the basis of eligibility for free school meals, and in the 2% least inclusive on the basis of English as an additional language. It is clearly excluding those who can't, won't or don't jump through hoops in the way some people do.
And when such luminaries as Peter Hitchins in the Daily Mail and Fraser Nelson in the Spectator think that questions need to be asked about the exclusivity of selective state schools, you know that the tide has turned.
Don't pretend you are doing something you aren't
It would be much more honest if parents who choose to pay for their children’s education were much more honest about their motives. If you feel that your child needs the extra help that a school with a smaller teacher/pupil ratio can give them, say so. If you want a school with a theatre, or a swimming pool, say so. If you don’t want your child to go to school with certain people, say so.
But don’t blithely assert that your exclusive school has ‘better’ teachers, or ‘better’ facilities, or ‘better’ children. Because those things are myths and claiming they are true insults everyone who works in schools open to all. And don't for a minute suggest that gaming the system to get into an exclusive state school is more socially acceptable than buying privilege. That particular fable has been debunked for all to see.