If the state school is fine, why pay?

More and more parents who saw themselves as `independent school people' have found that the local comprehensive can get results - for free. Why not spend the cash on holidays, or build up a nest egg for the children? By Hilary Wilce
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Next week the headteachers of leading independent boys' schools meet for their annual assembly. A generation ago, a certain kind of parent would never have trusted their children's education with anything but a good private school. However, with star comprehensive schools producing A grades at GCSE and A-level by the bucketload, the choice is no longer automatic.

What sort of parent forks out pounds 40,000 for a child's secondary education when he or she can get the same sort of thing free at a local maintained school? As comprehensives cultivate a culture of excellence, more and more would-be private-school parents are asking themselves this. And more and more are coming up with the answer: not this one.

"We never envisaged our children going to state schools," says Helen Clemow, a physiotherapist married to an architect, who now has two of four children at Sandringham School, a Hertfordshire comprehensive. "We started paying fees for all of the children at three, and expected to go on paying them. But when I went to interview the head, he quite simply spoke my language. He talked about goal-setting, self-motivation, and a mentoring system. And I thought, if he can deliver that, well fine." She also found the school campus in St Albans, and the behaviour of pupils, "encouraging".

Her 11-year-old son wanted to transfer in order to go to a coeducational school, and his 13-year-old sister decided to join him. Both had started life in the Steiner school system, which is where the two younger children are, and where the family's educational heart remains.

"But we wouldn't go back. Several friends recommended Sandringham to us, and we can see that Katherine is enjoying being in a bigger school. Obviously there are children there from a different kind of background, but she can handle it."

Parents making this switch are a small but significant minority. All popular maintained schools report growing numbers at their door, with no corresponding leakage of other pupils back to the private sector. After years of horror stories, the traditional "nasty bit" of state schooling - 11 to 16 - seems to be losing its terror for picky middle-class parents.

Sandringham is typical, with five or six pupils transferring directly in from private schools over the past few years, and "a growing trickle" of new parents each year who had intended to pay fees before they saw what the school could offer. "We know because they come to our open days, and they tell us," says Stephen Andrews, the headteacher. "And they ask the most demanding questions. What point scores are we expecting in the sixth form? What proportion are going on to university? To Oxbridge? Which colleges are they going to?

"I tell them, frankly, that choosing us may be the difference of an A- level grade, it may be the difference between getting a 2:1 at Bristol or a 2:1 at Durham. But how does that compare, say, to putting the money you might have put into school fees into a PEP that will mature when your child is in his or her twenties and giving them the cash? Which is the better start in life for a child?"

"For a long time we've seen a drift out of the private sector at 16-plus," says Peter Downes, head of Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon. "At this school we have 20 to 30 sixth-formers, out of 200, who have transferred to us from local private schools. But we are also seeing a growing number coming to us at year nine. Some parents are driven by financial pressures, but others are just asking if the difference between us and the independent sector is as great as to justify the outlay. They come here and see a relatively well-equipped school with a civilised atmosphere and committed staff and ask themselves, what am I paying for when I could be using that money for so many other things - skiing trips or music lessons or extra holidays?"

Increasingly too, he says, more affluent parents are moving house in order to secure places for their children at oversubscribed schools like his. Nigel Milway, a senior executive with British Telecom, looked at "loads and loads and loads of schools, both state and private" when he was relocated to Milton Keynes, before settling in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, so that his children could go to the "outstanding" Redborne Upper School and Community College.

"We went into it all very carefully. After all, every parent wants to do the best for their children. But I live in a street where every other child goes to a private school, and I could afford to pay school fees, and I am quite often in groups with senior colleagues where everyone else's children go to private schools except mine. So I have to stop and go over it all over again. I ask myself, what are the exam results, is it a good environment, do they have good friends? And every time I check them off and say, well, where are the problems?"

So far, nowhere. His daughter has just gone to Sheffield University with four As at A-level, and he feels confident that his dyslexic son will get small classes and the special help he needs. "I've been very impressed by how good the state schools are at providing professional support in this field. Much better, in my view, than most private schools."

Redborne, which this year achieved better A-level results than many selective schools and which sends 75 per cent of its pupils on to university, is exactly the sort of school now attracting the attention of professional parents from way beyond the catchment area, and earning the loyalty of parents who would pay school fees without hesitation if they felt they had to.

"When we lived in London we thought that we would probably have to go private," says Gill Melor, another parent at the school. "So when we moved here, we put Katie's name down for a local private school." But Katie settled so well she never transferred out of local schools and has just achieved 11 starred As at GCSE, possibly the best GCSE result in the country.

"How could she possibly have done better elsewhere?" asks her mother. "And it isn't only her, all her friends have done well too. The school seems to have this magic ability to foster every child's potential. And it isn't even just the results - there are so many extracurricular activities going on. This is a small town, and the school is at the heart of everything. She knows everyone and she has so many friends. I went to boarding school and when I went home for the holiday I didn't know a soul. What she has is so much better."

Maintained schools are proud of their community base, and of their traditional emphasis on the all-round development of pupils. In response, independent schools point to their traditional curriculum strengths, separate sciences and multiple languages, as well as tight discipline and smaller classes.

Private-school pupil numbers have remained steady at about 7 per cent of the school population, but within this figure significant changes are happening. Pre-prep numbers are growing as private schools fill gaps in state provision at this level, but boarding numbers are down and many independent schools have to fight to keep their sixth-formers from the heady freedoms of state sixth-form colleges. Only 45 per cent of parents now paying schools fees were privately educated, and some schools are seeing significant shifts in their intake, with the children of small business owners and aspiring ethnic minority parents replacing the white professional and executive families who traditionally make up their intake.

Meanwhile, in the tough educational marketplace of the Nineties, comprehensives are aggressively pinching the independent schools' clothes. Gone are the old days of social engineering and hyper-egalitarianism; in have come league tables, glossy marketing, and new pitches for excellence and diversity.

At Sandringham School, Steven Andrews has introduced a range of outdoor and adventure challenges to develop students' self-confidence and leadership skills. "This is the kind of thing that independent schools have understood for a long time - that standing on top of Helvellyn, or whatever, is as important a part of education as what goes on in the classroom. Parents coming in here walk down our corridors and see that same inner confidence, that excitement for life, and excitement for learning that they expect to see in an independent school, and it strikes a chord. It's quality education. It's what we all want for our children, and they can see it."

So far the magnet effect is only local clusters around more prominent state schools, but it could gain momentum. Ted Tapper, a reader in politics at Sussex University, who has a book on independent schools and educational change coming out shortly, says most parents make pragmatic decisions about their children's schooling, and that if state schooling is seen to be good, then middle-class parents will choose accordingly.

"All the research shows that there are essentially two groups of private school parents: the small - and declining - band of traditionalists who wouldn't dream of doing anything else, and the large group of others who look at two things - exam results and behaviour.

"What we're seeing now is parents increasingly picking and choosing between the two systems, but if the state system starts hanging on to more middle- class parents then others will follow. And then there will be much wider spin-offs for the system as a whole, because the middle-class lobby will be much more attentive to state schooling, and it won't be nearly as easy to cut educational funding, or whatever, because those parents will be in there, protesting not only on behalf of their own children, but on behalf of the system as a whole."