Education under fire: fears over teaching standards push parents to private sector

More parents than ever before would send their children to private schools if they could afford it, research suggests.

Fears about poor discipline, standards and constant meddling with the curriculum prompted 57 per cent of parents to say they would consider removing their child from the state sector, an Ipsos MORI poll concluded. The proportion is the highest since the research group first asked the question in 1997, and significantly higher than the last poll in 2004, which found that 48 per cent of parents would consider private education.

Among Labour voters this year, 54 per cent of parents said they would consider educating a child privately – up from just 41 per cent in 2004. Fears about falling standards and poor discipline were the main factors given for their change of heart, the survey for the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found.

The number of parents who argue that fee-paying schools uphold "moral standards" has almost doubled – with 9 per cent saying this has affected their attitude towards private schools. The findings follow statistics which showed record numbers of children at independent schools this year, despite 11 years of initiatives and billions of pounds of investment by Labour to improve the state system.

Jane Robinson, who led the poll, said: "It would suggest there has been a shift in attitude and perception towards the independent sector in a positive direction. The shift has come primarily from those people who were previously undecided or who had a neutral opinion.

"What hasn't changed is the proportion of parents who said they would not send their children to an independent school, which stands at 36 per cent."

Some private school headteachers claimed parents were afraid that children were no longer safe in the state sector, where behaviour was getting worse, while ministerial "tinkering" since 1997 had damaged education.

Vicky Tuck, the head of Cheltenham Ladies' College and President of the Girls' Schools Association, said: "It is just endless change and initiatives and remodelling and reshaping. I think people by nature do not like change."

Deborah Odysseas-Bailey, the head of Babington House School in Chislehurst, Kent, and chairman of the Independent Schools Association, said educational change in state schools was moving "at a pace some parents are unsure of". "The independent sector provides continuity in a politically changing climate," she added. "When I speak to my parents, I know some of them work really jolly hard to send their children to my school. They do it because they are just not quite sure about the direction the Government is moving in."

Pru Jones, head of research at the ISC, said there was widespread confusion about plans for new diplomas to be taken alongside GCSEs and A-levels and whether the qualifications would survive if the Tories won power. "Parents see the independent sector as offering stability in an environment where educational changes seem to be announced pretty much every week," she said.

Last night, a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families defended the state sector, saying: "Parents are free to send their children to whatever kind of school they choose, but we are confident that free, state education is better than it has ever been and is continuing to improve."

Ipsos MORI questioned 2,000 adults, 600 of them parents.

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