Having worked as a teacher in London schools for over two decades, the majority of that time in the comprehensive public school system and significant portion of time in the private sector, I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.
There are three very good reasons why I would not send them but none of them are about money. Admittedly, I do not have a spare £18,000 or so a year to invest in private education (although I wouldn’t need to pay the full cost because, in most cases, as an employee you are entitled to often very substantial staff discounts). However, this would still not entice me. This is not to say that ‘everything is coming up roses’ in state education, far from it. But even if I could afford it, I just wouldn’t want my children to be educated through the private school system.
Firstly, I strongly believe that as a parent, I would be doing my children a huge disservice by sending them to a private school. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in private schools by their very nature. Some are non-selective (in that pupils may not have to pass an entrance exam to gain admission) but, by and large, a child in a private school will be surrounded by lots of wealthy, privileged, white children.
There may be one or two pupils on a bursary in a private school, which may give a tokenistic nod to ethnic or social diversity but still independent schools just do not reflect the rich tapestry of cultures in our cosmopolitan capital. More and more overseas students are attending private schools in the U.K. (as middle class families feel the austerity pinch and their numbers in private schools are falling) but although these overseas pupils may have a different nationality, their values and attitudes are very similar if not identical to their British peers.
This is not to say that privileged children are unsuitable peers, but a whole school of very similar pupils provides a rather limited scope of experience. Private school pupils are on the whole extraordinarily well-travelled and have been exposed to a wide variety of cultural events but they still, on the whole, have a limited life experience.
Children who have everything handed to them on a plate and have all adversity removed from their childhood will often lack resilience and emotional robustness. Generally speaking, private school pupils have had very little to overcome in their lives and have experienced little hardship. Consequently, many often have a huge sense of entitlement and fragile personalities.
As a teacher for over 20 years it is not in my nature to speak ill of any child. And that is not what I’m doing here. I’m generalising. In the same way we could also say that children from challenging socio-economic backgrounds often present with challenging behaviours. It’s not rocket science but it isn’t a rule for all children. My children have friends with names, religions, cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds which are sadly absent from private schools. These friends will go on to be my children’s neighbours, colleagues and partners, and learning about each other and how to get on with each other as children is a crucial foundation for what goes on in adult life.
Secondly, I feel the attitudes to learning/ learners and teaching/teachers in the different education sectors is vastly different. In the independent sector, the curriculum is pumped with subject knowledge and specialist teaching. Children from as early as reception receive specialist teachers for French, Mandarin, music or Latin for example.
In the main, the curriculum is ridiculously compartmentalised and disjointed and this makes for disparate learning. On the whole, in public sector schools the ethos is different; topic learning is still prevalent. For example, pupils will learn about the Tudors in history, write imaginative diaries of Elizabeth I in Literacy lessons, whilst learning to play Greensleeves in music and about the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome on religion in Britain, whilst painting a Holbein portrait. The learning is within a firm context, is meaningful and cross-curricula. The thinking is joined up, holistic and fun.
Additionally, I do not want to speak negatively or disparagingly of private school teachers (many of whom are my very good friends) but I will say that in the private sector there is a much greater emphasis on the teachers’ subject knowledge and not their skills as practitioners. Sadly, as I know from experience on open mornings, when prospective parents go around, quite often one of the questions being asked is “so where did you get your degree?”. (Although parents need not ask, as this information is often made available on school literature.)
This prevalent attitude is based on an out of date and largely debunked philosophy. I’d like to believe that ‘gone are the days’ when we think of teaching as little more than seeing children as empty vessels to be filled with facts and knowledge. In the private sector, I’ve encountered many teachers with first class degrees from Russell Group universities who are ‘old Downe House girls’ or ‘old Paulinas’ (educated at St Paul’s Girls School) who are very knowledgeable in their specialist subject but haven’t got a clue about pedagogy, let alone children. These teachers are often completely confounded by pupils who may have special educational needs, have English as an additional language or have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even in deliciously small class sizes, private school teachers struggle with pupils with difficulties as they themselves have probably encountered few pupils with learning difficulties in their own education.
Just as well private school teachers rarely encounter such children in their teaching career, and if they do, the school will often simply request the parents pay additional fees for the child to have one-to-one tuition with SEN or EAL specialists. Excluding pupils with challenging needs is rarely an issue because a quiet informal meeting with the head teacher usually leads to the pupil leaving to go to a more ‘suitable’ setting with little fuss.
Regularly, I tell my pupils and my own children: ‘Mistakes are golden!’. It is when we make mistakes that we really have an opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as you learn from it. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that, if you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not learning. The real tragedy is when we make the same mistake over and over again without learning, or, as is so often the case with particularly pupils in private schools, we hide or run from a mistake and see it as a source of embarrassment, or worse, shame.
If so much of your life in a private school is building up towards passing an 11+ exam and getting into a seemingly elite independent secondary school, the cost of making mistakes is high. Children focus on finding the right answer. Therefore understanding the process of learning, metacognition and creativity is stifled if not crushed. It may sound alarmist but many private schools are breeding judgmental, jaded and narrowly-focused pupils who are terrified of making mistakes.
Finally, children’s mental health across-the-board, (regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural backgrounds), is an overwhelming concern for any educationalist, regardless of where or who they teach. In many private schools (and increasingly more public sector schools) the culture of competition is at best problematic but in many cases, disturbingly rampant. Consequently children are frightened of making mistakes.
When your parents have met substantial financial costs for your education, mistakes take on even greater implications. Children become automatons fearing mistakes and seeking only to score the top marks. Their awareness of themselves as learners or as creative thinkers is repressed as their prime focus becomes getting 130+ in standardised scores and looking like a candidate for a ‘top’ independent secondary school.
I have known many children who, after a very heavy day at a private school (learning six different subjects and having clubs for sports or science before and after school) then go home and have another hour or two of tuition. It is worryingly commonplace the number of children who regularly look exhausted, fraught and on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew of one girl preparing for 15 separate entrance exams, which probably cost her parents over £1,500 to just sit them and nearly cost the girl her sanity.
As a teacher and parent, my fundamental principle is this; what I want for my own children, I want for all children. I want children to grow into happy, successful, creative, well-rounded and caring adults. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe the best chance of my own children, and arguably any child, becoming such an individual is by going through the comprehensive school system.