'You do anything for their happiness'

It costs thousands of pounds to use independent schools, but parents are clear about why they choose them
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The Independent Online

What is it that makes modestly well-off parents send their children off to inde-pendent schools, particularly when they were educated in state schools themselves? They are, after all, committing themselves to spending the equivalent of buying a house over the school lives of a couple of children.

What is it that makes modestly well-off parents send their children off to inde-pendent schools, particularly when they were educated in state schools themselves? They are, after all, committing themselves to spending the equivalent of buying a house over the school lives of a couple of children.

Andrew Cunningham, himself an independent-school teacher and the father of young children, talked to a group of parents at one state primary school who were hovering on the brink of picking independent schools for the next stage of their children's education. At least four families out of 40 in Year Two at Cranleigh Infants School in Surrey are seriously considering independent schools for their seven-year-olds this September.

Sam Liversedge has put his daughter Tamera's name down for a place at Farlington (all-girls) and Cranleigh Preparatory (mixed)

"I want to put Tamera in an environment where she will develop the confidence to get involved in all sorts of activities. By that, I mean smaller class sizes and a chance to take the subjects and activities that won't be offered at the local primary, like French, music, PE, drama, judo even. She may not excel at everything, but at least she can try.

"I wouldn't even consider the local primary. I went to state schools myself and suspect she'd be lost in a class of 30, with everything pitched towards the middle ability. Her reports at infant school already suggest under-achievement. I think there'll be more feedback at a private school, and we'll be able to sit down with her and help her to improve.

"We're lucky ­ we can afford the fees. A private education is something I've always wanted for her. I'd like her to grow up in an environment where girls are expected to go on to university. She may not turn out to be a top academic, but at least she'll be in a culture where girls can achieve. I hope she'll enjoy school and come out of the experience a well-rounded individual."

Alex Cunningham is a governor of Cranleigh Infants, and seriously considered a state primary first ­ even though her husband is a teacher at a local independent school. Both she and her husband went to private schools. Daughter Hetty (7) is currently at Cranleigh Infants School.Son Jamie, nearly 4,will join her there this autumn.

"I liked the staff at the local primary. They were keen and committed, and the school had a "buzz" about it, plus an excellent Ofsted report. It was class sizes and the government-dictated curriculum that settled the matter. The literacy and numeracy strategy is too restricting at that age ­ there's no chance to study languages; history and geography are limited, too.

"Our daughter is 'average' and will fare better in a smaller class. She's very sociable. If not pushed, she could probably concentrate too much on socialising. If the classes were smaller and they offered a broader curriculum, there'd be no reason not to send her to the state primary. But facilities play a part, too. State schools can't compete with private schools here. There are more playing-fields, access to a swimming-pool, indoor sports facilities when it rains, and a music school."

Fiona Prior has a foot in both camps with her three children: one is at a comprehensive, one at an all-girls independent, and seven-year-old Jonathan is down for a place at the state primary, St Nicholas. Neither she nor husband, Colin, went to independent schools.

"If money was no object, they'd all be at private schools. Before my eldest, Emily, went private, I knew nothing about these schools, and was expecting everyone to be very rich and snobbish. I've been surprised how normal most of the parents are. If I had a sudden surge of money, I'd send Jonathan to a private school... but the fees are frightening.

"I suppose the key point is that more attention is paid to parents' views. When Emily started at the local comprehensive, she was in the bottom set for maths. I rang up to ask why, and was told they had 180 children to worry about. They said she had to prove herself.

"I watched her losing self-esteem by the day. To be listened to, I feel you have to go private.

"Now she's at an independent school, Tormead in Guildford, there is this feeling you can do anything ...

"She wants to be a doctor, and that's a high ambition. I would say that ambition has come from her school. Tormead is very focused on women's achievements, and she is surrounded by successful role models.

"I'm happy with St Nicholas for Jonathan. Most of his friends are going there. He likes drama ­ and they run a drama club. As for long-term, I don't know whether we'll be richer or poorer then ­ if we're richer, he'll go private. Later on, qualifications become more important; if you don't get into the top set in the state sector, you feel you're doomed.

"It's such a huge sum of money, though, especially when you add it up over a lifetime. But you would do anything for your children to be happy."

education@independent.co.uk

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