Education Quandary

'I am coming back from Australia with a son aged four, and wondering whether to go for public or private education. I would be willing to pay, if it was worth it'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

First of all, be very clear about what you would be paying. Private school fees will have escalated hugely since you left, and you won't see a lot of change out of £100,000 if you educate your son, start to finish, in the private sector. And that's just for day schools. It will be more for boarding. Then there are the extras that come with the territory - the ski trip that "everyone" is going on, the uniform, the music lessons, the sports kit...

Is it worth it? The short answer is: it depends what you want. Private schools tend to have smaller classes, higher exam results and more drama, sports and music than state schools. Privately educated schoolchildren can have a confidence and polish (and sometimes an arrogance) that state-school children lack, and by going private you will be able to screen yourself from most of the underbelly of society - although not all of it, as anyone who has seen how some bellowing prep school fathers behave on sports days can attest!

Against this, with society becoming more egalitarian and universities keen to widen access, you could be actively doing your child down if you put him into a position where his social experience is limited, and his university application form, when he gets to that stage of things, reeks of too much privilege.

It is, to be honest, all a question of weighing up one thing against another, although it's also worth bearing in mind that no decision about a child's schooling is ever set in stone, and if, when you get back here, you feel you've done the wrong thing, you can always change it.

What it most probably hinges on, though, is where you settle when you come home. State schools vary. Some are mediocre; others are good. If there isn't a good local school - or if there is, but you can't get your son in there (which is a whole other kettle of fish) - you might decide that going private is the only option.

But if good public schooling is available, why pay out thousands for what you can get for free? Many parents with the dosh for fees prefer to put their children in the local school and fund a few out-of-school extras, rather than sign a single gigantic cheque every term.

Of course, private schools also vary, so you will need to do a lot of serious research on both sides of the fence before making any decision. Luckily, the internet makes it easy to get going, even from the other side of the world. Go to Ofsted for up-to-date inspection reports on schools in the state sector, and to the Independent Schools Council information service (ISCis) for information on private schools.

Readers' advice

The main influence on a child's education is the quality of teaching, so it is important to choose a school where a very high percentage of the teaching is considered to be very good or excellent. I personally think that inspections of independent schools are "lighter" than those in state schools - if Ofsted says a state school is "excellent" then it almost certainly is. The important thing is that your child is in a school where he has a sense of belonging and is valued, where the teaching is excellent, and the school is capable of producing happy, confident and well-educated children. Don't assume that this is possible only in the private sector.
Belinda Brackley, Buckinghamshire

Moving our son at eight to a prep school was the best thing we ever did for him. His work took off, and he immediately made great friends. Our only regret was not doing it sooner.
Graeme Langley, Surrey

We wanted our son to go to a private school - his grandparents would pay - but he insisted on going to the local comprehensive. Last year, he got 10 good GCSEs and is now taking four A-levels. He is mature, well-balanced and independent with a realistic take on the world. The only thing that has suffered is his accent!
Sandy Rudemere, London N5

Next week's quandary

My son is halfway through his GCSEs and working well, but with the summer looming, I am wondering if there is anything I can do to keep him "on the boil" over the holiday period?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 28 June, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser