The recession changed all that as increasing numbers of parents, forced to take their children out of independent schools, have been pleasantly surprised by state sector standards. It has also made parents, now much more canny about educational value for money, look critically at the variety on offer in both sectors. Last week, independent school heads told a press conference that more parents than ever before are choosing a mixture of private and state education. These are the experiences of two families.
From private to state
Clare Hatt goes to a state school; her 15-year-old twin, Peter, is at an independent. They and their 13-year-old sister, Georgina, started their education at the same independent school in Oxfordshire that their father, Adrian, attended as a child; he later went to boarding school, as did their mother, Vicky.
Adrian: 'We would never have encountered the state system if it hadn't been for the failings of one particular private school. From eight upwards the children's school was girls only, so Peter went to a boys' prep school. Increasingly, the education offered by the two schools diverged enormously.
'The girls' school was very small. It was a school for young ladies: good behaviourally, good socially, but not very good academically. By the time Clare was 11 she had done no science at all.
'The facilities in Peter's prep school were very good and educationally it seemed to be doing him a lot better. That prompted us to look at other private schools for Clare. When she was 11 she sat an entrance exam for one, and to our surprise she failed. So we looked at a boarding school, but Clare didn't fancy boarding.
'When we were running out of options there happened to be an open day at Didcot Girls' School. We hadn't looked at state schools since the twins were seven, when most local primaries seemed very foreign to the private system we had been educated in. We were impressed by the facilities at Didcot, we liked the atmosphere, the space and the fact that it's single sex.'
Vicky: 'But it was a horrible choice to make. The headmistress kept saying that changing from the private system would ruin Clare. Rumours went round that we couldn't afford the fees; people couldn't believe we were changing out of choice.
'I did worry that Didcot was much bigger and that there are all sorts of people there, and that she would be the only girl from private school. Arriving half-way through the first year made it more difficult, and she could have come back quite upset, but she didn't.
'It's amazing how the girls have found their level. Clare is highly self-motivated and hard-working and she's in a good group of friends. Until she went to Didcot I didn't realise how blinkered she had become; she was getting more and more snobbish.'
Adrian: 'There's a much wider social mix and a total ability mix. It's never held them back, because the streaming copes very well with it and the discipline's good. We felt it was better training in life to be able to cope with all comers.
'I tend to be a bit traditional in that I've always felt that a boy's education is more important than a girl's. Peter's school is more academically inclined than the girls' school, but Peter's and Clare's education is not that far different now. I'm sure they'll both go to university. I think Clare has done better at Didcot than she would have done elsewhere.'
From state to private
Colin and Jill Garlick's children James, 11, and Laura, nine, left the local state infants' school, where Colin is chairman of the governors, at the age of seven to go to Richard Pate, a private junior school in Cheltenham. James has since gone to a grammar school.
Colin: 'Both children did well at infants' school. The main reason we moved James was that he was reasonably good academically, and I knew the private school would increase the odds of getting him to the grant-maintained grammar school at 11: it's more academically minded and they push pupils towards being able to pass exams.
'As a governor I saw state school budgets getting tighter. It is a concern that education is being starved of money, and the only way to avoid that is by private education.
'That doesn't feel right to me. Everybody should get a good quality education, and I don't think it's right to be able to buy a better one. And, because I am chairman of the governors, there was a feeling of some disloyalty. But in the end I decided that what I really wanted was what was best for the children.
'It was a decision I also found incredibly difficult because I felt ill equipped: I don't know enough about education. We talked to parents with children at Pate's, and assessed how happy the school felt, the work children were doing there and whether we thought our children would fit in.
'With Laura it was a much harder decision than James, who is very independent. We worried about taking her away from the moral support you get from having your friends around you. At the same time, because she's a girl, we felt guilty about the idea of treating her less well financially than her brother. In the end, sending her to Pate's worked out beautifully well.
'Every year there are probably two or three children who leave the infants' school for somewhere like Pate's. Private education does not mean you get the best teachers, it means you get smaller classes, better equipment and the children learn French, Latin and music with specialists. I guess Pate's is a bit old-fashioned: the children spend more time sitting at desks being taught as a class than in small groups, they recite their times tables and get more homework.
'I didn't know anyone who had been to private school until I went to university. I grew up in a working-class area, and going to the grammar school was almost a family tradition - my grandfather, father, two brothers and I all went.
'It concerns me that it would be very easy for James and Laura to believe that the world is made up of kids from nice middle-class backgrounds; they're insulated from real life, almost, by going to that sort of school. Even though Pate's is not hugely expensive compared with other schools, there are a lot of fancy motors in the car park.
'If James hadn't passed for the grammar school, we probably would have sent him to another private school. As it is, going back to state education feels like winning the pools. But leaving aside the money, the grammar school was still the first choice. I'm sure it leaves the private schools dead as far as academic results go.'
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