Parents who pick 'n' mix state and private schools

Gone are the days when parents decided once and for all whether or not to educate their children privately. Modern mums and dads are far more likely to shop around and switch tactic according to the needs of a particular child. By Elaine Williams
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Parents are becoming increasingly pragmatic and hard-nosed about where they send their children to school, and are willing to move them in and out of state and independent sectors as befits their judgement and budget.

Until relatively recently, parents plumped mostly for one sector or the other for the whole of a child's schooling. Today they are far more likely to consider buying into independent schooling for just a few years. A growing number are even prepared to split siblings between the two sectors according to their children's needs and the amount of cash in the coffers - going for a la carte rather than the set menu.

One quarter of parents who have a child in an independent school also have one or more children in state schools, according to the Independent Schools Information Service, which is soon to publish the results of a survey of parents. More than half of parents, when they choose a school, actively look at both sectors.

"This is a shopper's market," says Tim Kirkup, headmaster of Scarborough College, an independent school that takes children from three to 18. "We cannot afford to take anything for granted. There are those who have a trusting faith in the power of independent schools to solve every problem; there are those who still believe that boys must be educated privately, whereas state schools will do for their girls - it's horrific, but it's true. But there are those who are calculating very carefully what best fits the needs of the child." It is not unusual, he says, for children in his school to have siblings in the state sector.

Below, four families talk about their reasons for making different provision for different children, and the effect this has on family relationships.

The Hillings

Lesley and Peter Hilling live in Gravesend, Kent. They have two children. Jennifer, aged 17, attends Cobham Hall School, a nearby private girls' boarding school, as a day pupil. Mark, aged 15, attends Thamesview School, which is grant-maintained.

Jennifer was also attending Thamesview, but the crunch came when she wanted to go on to do A-levels. Mrs Hilling says: "She couldn't carry on and do A-levels there, so we had to look at the alternatives. We looked at the local grammar and four other schools she could have gone to, but she wasn't happy about any of them. She's quiet, not very outgoing an,d she really needed to be brought out.

"Then we saw an ad in the paper for assisted places at Cobham Hall. We don't have any money for that kind of thing; I'm a shop assistant, and my husband's an electrical fitter, and he's unemployed. But we went along, and Jennifer loved it. It's a small school, very friendly, and she can just get on with her work. She has a full life and she doesn't get picked on." Jennifer now studies for English, history and economics A-levels.

Mark, on the other hand, intends to stay on at Thamesview to do GNVQs in the sixth form. Mrs Hilling believes that, even if they could find the money, her son is not suited to a school like Cobham Hall. She says: "He's the opposite of his sister. My daughter will sit and study; she loves reading. But it's hard to get Mark reading. He's more practically oriented, and he's very happy with his friends at Thamesview. He doesn't mind at all that Jennifer goes to Cobham."

Mark says that he is "proud" of his sister, but is content to stay where he is. Jennifer, on the other hand, feels that her brother does like the idea "of going to a school like mine" but not the work involved. She says: "I do think there's a bit of tension, but he knows that I like to work and he knows that he's lazy. It does give him a good excuse to take the mickey out of me. I went through a phase of saying "yah" all the time, and he thought that was quite funny."

The Macdonalds

Dinah and Charles Macdonald live in Eridge, a village on the Kent border, and have three daughters. Katherine, now aged 19, attended Walthamstow Hall, a local independent girls' boarding school, as a day girl; Anna, aged 16, is still there as a day girl. Elspeth, 13, attends Tonbridge grammar school for girls, which is grant-maintained.

Both Mr and Mrs Macdonald were privately educated. Mr Macdonald is a barrister and, though Mrs Macdonald has worked as a teacher in a state school, they had never considered state schooling for their children. All three girls were sent to Walthamstow Hall when the family moved out from London to Kent. However, as Elspeth was nearing the end of her junior schooling, she decided she didn't want to follow in the footsteps of her sisters. Her parents found themselves thinking the unthinkable.

Mrs Macdonald said: "It took us a few years to work out that there was a free, excellent option. Elspeth wanted to go somewhere different, and maybe we felt more confident with our third child. She's so happy at the grammar school. It's a very different ethos. Grammar school girls are more streetwise and independent. Elspeth is a trier; she wants to do well; she's the sort who gets to be form captain, which apparently is a bit sad. Being in a huge school she has to speak up for herself. She's picked up the accent and speaks with the Tonbridge gabble, and there's a bit of rivalry. The other two rib her and say that she's at a Kev school. She says they're too hoity-toity. I think they thought their parents had gone mad sending their child to a different school. They were a little embarrassed at the time but they really support Elspeth now.

"Walthamstow did miracles for our 19-year-old. She got an A and two Bs when she left. She's clever, but she was a rebellious teenager. She couldn't be bothered, and Walthamstow worked hard to keep her on course. It really looks after its girls. She would have been lost at Tonbridge. Anna is clever, but less confident. She can do the work but doesn't believe she can. She's given a lot of support and comfort. Tonbridge would be her idea of hell."

Elspeth, however, couldn't wait to go it alone. She says: "My sisters didn't think I would get such a good education because I was going to state school. They said: `Elspeth, how are you going to handle this?' But I didn't want to be a little Macdonald. Teachers get a set opinion about a certain kind of family and my sister is quite clever, and though I'm not completely stupid I wanted to do something different."

The O'Briens

Avril and Donald O'Brien live in Liverpool and have three sons: David, 18, attends the Blue Coat School, which is grant-maintained; Paul, 16, is a pupil at Liverpool College, an academically selective independent day school, and Hugh Martin, seven, attends a state primary school, but will go to Liverpool College on an assisted place in September.

Mr O'Brien, who owns an industrial roofing business, sent both older boys to Liverpool College. But as his company was running into financial trouble he began to think of an alternative for David, the most academically able. He says: "We'd never been rich, but we were finding it more difficult as time went on. The Blue Coat has the reputation for being the best for working families in this area, and we thought it would suit David. He moved at 14. Paul was more sociable, artistic and sporty. He was in the rugby team and would have been very upset to move. It would have been a wrench, whereas David didn't mind. We're lucky to have got an assisted place for Hugh Martin, as we're not keen on the alternative provision."

David has indeed accepted that he and his brother have different needs. He says: "We are very different people. A school's a school. I've done OK where I am, and the teaching's very good. It's just the way it worked out."

The McGills

Alister and Christine McGill live in Scarborough. They have three daughters: Laura, 14, attends Graham School, one of the town's comprehensives; Emily, 12, moved from Graham to Scarborough College, a local independent day school and Katie, aged 10, attends St Martin's Church of England primary school in Scarborough and will go to Scarborough College in September.

Mr McGill is the major shareholder in a structural steel fabrication company that fared badly in the recession but is now recovering. He could not consider private education for Laura when she left St Martin's (an oversubscribed voluntary-aided state primary school with a formidable reputation), but has been in a position to consider it since.

The McGills' major concern was that Katie, the youngest, who struggles academically, would benefit from smaller classes and the extra support they felt Scarborough College could provide. Mr McGill says: "Katie had so much support at St Martin's; we just didn't want to let her loose in a comprehensive with big classes. But if we were to send Katie to Scarborough College, then we knew we would have to send Emily. She had always wanted to go there. It was a stretch financially, but we moved her from Graham because she was only 12 and she was able to catch up with the work. She has plenty of determination, and moved straight into the top sets.

"I didn't want to move Laura. Moving from the third to the fourth form (year 9 to year 10) is not good. I did it myself at that age, moving from one grammar school to another, and found it very hard. I was concerned that she would find it difficult and demoralising. Graham is a good school - I've been amazed by the work they do there - and at the time Laura said she didn't mind, but now she's a bit bitter. She sees it as favouritism, though she says she wouldn't go there now even if we asked her. She scoffs at the College but I think it's resentment. It does seem to have affected her relationship with her sisters, but it's hard to know whether that's normal 14-year-old behaviour.

"We've given her a horse as a way of making up, but it's caused a lot of heartache. My wife has felt very, very anxious at times."