The UK’s private schools are the envy of the world. Well-established names like Eton, Harrow, Westminster, and St. Paul’s command respect from all corners of globe. Indeed, regardless of where they stand in the league tables, it seems that private schools are in greater demand than ever before. Ostensibly, the high demand stems from the belief that private schools provide a higher quality education for children than do state schools…but is this, in fact, the case?
Private education provides a number of benefits. With smaller class sizes and greater resources, teachers and staff are able to give students more personalised attention. While teachers may not necessarily be better qualified than their state-sector counterparts, they have the benefit, in most cases, of less unruly classrooms. However, what you are principally paying for with your tuition fees is something quite removed from these things.
Private education allows parents to choose their child’s cohort of peers.
Choosing to pay for education, above and beyond what you already pay for with your taxes, is a declaration of the value you place on education. Any private school, much less the elite set, comes with a significant price tag. While there are some families for whom such money is no object, for the majority of families who consider privately educating their children, that is not the case, and budgetary considerations of some degree are necessary. A willingness to potentially sacrifice other things for the sake of a child’s education demonstrates the importance of education to a family.
Families with this mind-set are more likely to support their child’s education in any number of ways, including helping with homework, monitoring progress, emphasising independent study and learning, and encouraging diverse extra-curricular activities. When placing your child in private education, you are placing them in a classroom with children who come from similar environments with like approaches to educational excellence. Families that send their children to private schools are generally more affluent than average, with all of the societal advantages that affords, and all of the assumptions about parental educational level that go with it.
It is this uniformity of ability and mind-set that makes private classrooms more manageable for teachers, not the ability of the teachers. The teachers themselves are not necessarily any better than those found in states schools, nor are they necessarily more experienced. Indeed, they may be less qualified than state-sector teachers. While the curricula offered in a private school may be more in-depth or more diverse, this is more a by-product of the conducive atmosphere created by children intent on learning than anything else
All of this begs the question: with competition for independent school places increasingly intense, is it really necessary to place your child in one at all? Should it be a priority?
The answer: probably not, from a strictly educational perspective. If you are the type of parent who would consider private schooling in the first place, the environment in your home is likely to be one that encourages your child to take education seriously, and to put in due effort. A child in a state school could receive the same personalised attention and breadth of subjects with the support of a personal tutor. Private tutoring can also be a much more economical way of providing your child with these benefits.
From a ‘value-added’ perspective, there is a strong argument for considering that private schools add very little, but rather provide a platform for children to achieve what they likely would have achieved anyway, regardless of school environment. There is evidence from America to suggest that, were you to send your child to a school with more affluent peers, they would perform better whether or not the school was private. If you control for background factors such as family income, or parental education level, results in the United States suggest that students at private schools perform no better than their state-schooled peers.*
Similar conclusions could be easily applied to the British case. Though nearly all of the best private schools are academically selective, they are choosing from a cohort of applicants that can afford the fees in the first place, insinuating very important things about the resources those parents have to further their child’s education outside of school, and the education levels of those parents.
Parents, of course, choose private schools for a variety of reasons beyond academics, and private schools exist that cater to desires ranging from religiously-affiliated education to education focused on Special Educational Needs (SEN). The majority, however, are trading on the impression that they are able to provide children with a better quality education than that which they would receive in a state school. Particularly in London, where schools are generally of a high quality, and consistently improving, this may not be the case.
Extra support for students in state schools, in the form of private tuition, after-school homework clubs, study centres, or extra-curricular activities like sports or music, can achieve a ‘private school effect’ by providing the specialised, individual attention that a child needs while broadening horizons into subjects that may be beyond the standard state curriculum.