Debate: Is private education really better or is it just an expensive con?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A report last week found that children from state schools do better at university, so is private education a waste of money? John Walsh says no, his daughter is thriving and her grammar is fantastic; Amanda Lipman is convinced her children won't be disadvantaged at a state school, and they'll learn to relate to their world as well

John Walsh foundered in a state school. So when it came to selecting for his daughter, he had no doubts.

My parents were Irish Catholic. They wanted me to have a religious education and didn't like the thought of English private schools so they got me into a place run by Jesuits. In the junior school (which was close to being a junior public school) I had a fantastic time - small classes, manly sports, shiny conkers, passionate teachers, intense competition. We moved, short-trousered, in a glow of teacherly appreciation, full of confidence and tiny subversions of discipline.

At the end of the first year in the college proper, a state grammar school, I came top of the class, and then proceeded to plummet. The classes were suddenly enormous. The playground was patrolled by spidery bullies who would smack you in the face for no reason. Two of the teachers, of European history and physics, issued reading lists and showed frank contempt for those who couldn't fathom the Albigensian Heresy orBoyle's Second Law. I was victimised, no doubt for being a weed, a prat or a motormouth. Then the school went comprehensive and whispers went around about "knife fights in the playground" that would soon become commonplace. They didn't; but by then I was so far from that initial confident glow of public-school childhood that I was keen to leave.

So when we moved to Camberwell, I didn't have to make any difficult decisions about where to send my daughter. There's a fine state school in Dog Kennel Hill about which people spoke highly. I'd heard, though, that Alleyn's School, one of the three primary-league private schools in neighbouring Dulwich, was opening a junior school, and I was keener to investigate there.

I went along. They seemed barmily fanatical about music. They leaned towards team sports but encouraged Hula Hooping. They were keen on the happiness of the children but were also grimly determined that they should understand grammar as soon as possible.

I was sold. And sure enough, my daughter, from being wholly unable to read or write at five, had turned into Virginia Woolf by the end of the first year. More important, she had a large peer group with whom, five years later, she still shares her passions and dislikes. The dozen or so 11-year-olds watch each other's behaviour, criticise each other, wonder about right and wrong and sex and drugs, discuss selfishness and bullying and circus animals and Blue Peter presenters, like so many junior pundits; they reach a communal moral Weltanschauung like a committee of village elders.

Sophie is as puzzled over the oratio obliqua rule as I was, but that's not the point. The point is, I know that she'll be all right - confident, well-balanced, kind, watchful, diplomatic, enquiring, fearless and, to use a word only found in mid-period Enid Blyton, decent. I know she'll be able to handle whatever the world brings her, from a vantage-point of secure equilibrium that I lost at 10. Maybe she'd have got on just as well in a state school, but I couldn't take the risk. If you can afford it, you choose the best, the safest, the most sociable and most intellectually stimulating school you can find - the school that can teach her most. I've never had a second's regret. John Walsh went on to get an upper second in English at Exeter College, Oxford. He is now assistant editor at 'The Independent'.

Amanda Lipman had to learn about real life after she left her private school. She wants her children to discover it while they're being educated.

I have no personal precedent for favouring the prospect of a state-run primary education for my two small children. I had a private education, at a girls' junior school, and at a semi-swish all-girls senior school, where I secretly envied girls in other schools who could do subjects such as technology and design unknown to my august establishment .

It has been argued that I had such a privileged education that I am in no position to make claims for the merits of any other way. But in some senses it was peculiarly skewed: my peers were (with one exception) all white, middle-class girls. It took a while before I entered the real world. And it feels important to me that my children grow up in an environment that reflects both the cultural and social diversity of where we live and of this era, so that they do not fall into the notion of us and them, with all its implicit (or even explicit) hostility.

For me, one of the most important aspects of schooling is its role in making children part of their community. I don't want my kids to be bussed in and out of some distant centre of learning; I want them to see their school as a kind of extension of their home - part of the area they inhabit, with local projects that mean something to them and friends nearby.

The local primary is not exactly a centre of academic excellence, and I've been told by friends that if I don't give my children the chance to have a good academic education, I will be cutting off their options for later in life. If they go to the local primary, the argument goes, they won't get into a "good" secondary school, and then they won't have the chance to go to university.

I am not convinced. First, it seems absurdly snobbish to suggest that you don't get to university without a private education (assuming that you want to go at all). Second, a small but rising number of those who missed out or did not have the opportunities the first time round have come to further education later in life and found a measure of satisfaction that most of us who blindly went into it at 18 never even stopped to consider.

Of course I want my children to acquire literacy and numeracy skills. But as long as a school is doing a fair job in these departments, I also believe that the home environment can provide enough encouragement to expand on these - to encourage kids to read more widely, to apply the maths they learn. And I believe passionately that education is about much more than that. It is, in part, about making sense of the topics taught at school in the wider world, something in which parents can play a part. It is also about growing up, starting to take responsibility and make considered choices; about learning to socialise and to co-exist with peers and adults. And these are all issues that state primaries are as equipped as any other kind of school to take on.

Most of all, I want my children to experience their school as a happy and welcoming environment; one in which they want to spend time. How better to do that than to feel that the school is part of the picture that includes their home, their friends and their ever-changing perception of the world at large? Amanda Lipman went on to get a 2:2 in English from New Hall, Cambridge. She is now a psychotherapist

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