Few subjects get parents so hot under the collar as private education. It gives an unfair social and professional leg-up and creates an out-of-touch elite, argue its detractors. But supporters say fee-paying schools offer a broader choice, better results and nurture children neglected by the state system.
For the shy girl who flourishes in a single sex school to the boisterous boy who relishes competitive sport to a creative child fulfilled by a flexible curriculum, a huge variety of selective and non-selective schools say they can offer what the state school can't. Beautiful grounds, impressive facilities, academic rigour and freedom from the national curriculum – and a swimming pool if you're lucky.
More than half of parents questioned in a survey commissioned by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) last year declared they would send their child to one of the UK's 2,500 independent schools if they could afford it because they overwhelmingly believe they offer a better education, better prospects and better discipline. But with fees rising above inflation in the last decade to reach an average £11,709 a year for day schools and £26,340 for boarding, many parents struggle, despite an increasing amount of financial help. Some seven per cent of school-aged children are in private education and roughly a third of their parents now receive means-tested bursaries.
"Parents believe their investment in fees is an investment in their children's future," says Julie Robinson, a former prep school head teacher and education and training director at the Independent Association of Prep Schools. "They say the independent sector seems to bring a set of high expectations: a huge amount of time invested in pastoral support and personal development for the children, excellent facilities and a focus on learning."
While numbers attending private schools have risen this year by 0.1 per cent – due in part to a rise in numbers attending private nurseries and in students from abroad – some schools have merged to ride out the financial downturn, while others have closed and a few are even planning to re-open as state-funded independent academies.
"If anything it seems more parents are opting out of the state system," says mother Maria Shahid. When her son began at her local primary school in Merton, she began to doubt it suited him, even though Ofsted had judged it outstanding. "He was bright but easily distracted. I felt very strongly all he needed was a bit of attention. Learning through play isn't appropriate for every child and with 30 in the class he was overlooked. He was getting bored." She moved him aged five to an all-boy prep school in Surrey where class sizes are capped at 20 and competitive sport features heavily. "This wasn't a decision we took lightly – we've had to forego luxuries. We weren't looking for an all-boys prep but this school understands how they learn. They just 'get' him and he's done well."
Another mother who moved her two children from their well-regarded local primary to an independent school remembers: "The difference was black and white. My daughter was really inspired. My son had been waking up crying about going to his old school every morning. He hasn't done that since we moved him." Within two weeks at his new school, her son was diagnosed with dyslexia and poor vision. "His state school knew something was wrong but didn't have the resources to tackle it," she says. Class sizes and sport were her other overriding reasons to move. "We're really struggling now to pay the fees, but I really think I'd rather lose the house than take them out, having seen both sides of the system."
Independent schools offer one teacher for every 9.4 pupils compared to one to 17.6 in the state system and classes often number just 20 pupils compared to 30-plus in many state primaries. Private schools in England and Wales aren't obliged to hire qualified teachers, though many do come from the state sector, and don't have the same obligation to continue their professional development. "Private schools often think because things have worked for years they shouldn't be changed," says a former special needs co-ordinator at a Hampshire prep school. "You still find old fashioned teaching styles in prep schools."
Naturally, independent schools vigorously defend the quality of their teachers and are regularly inspected by a variety of professional bodies. "[Independent schools] give the opportunity and freedom to teach to a high academic level, and they don't have to follow the national curriculum," says Barnaby Lenon, former headmaster of Harrow School and chairman of the ISC. "Teachers are encouraged to get involved in extra-curricular activities."
Whether to send your child from the start or wait until senior school is hotly debated – many parents can't make the financial commitment to see their child through more than a decade of fees. "I'd save my money for secondary every time," says one mother whose son received special needs teaching during his years at state primary. "He had far more support in the state system than he would have had in private." Other parents swear by giving children a solid academic and sporting grounding at primary level in order to re-enter the state system flying high at secondary school or sixth form.
Many parents are swayed by undeniably successful exam results at GCSE and A-level, and by the fact that 91 per cent of pupils from ISC schools go on to university. Not only are results higher – 18 per cent of independent schools' A-level entries received A* this year compared to a national average of 7.9 per cent – but also students are more likely to study the traditional subjects favoured by Russell Group Universities. Core subjects such as maths and further maths, sciences, history and languages are all viewed favourably by the country's top performing universities, and studied by more pupils at independent schools than elsewhere. This year's GCSE results are equally strong – 31 per cent of entries from private schools achieved an A* compared to a national average of 7.3 per cent.
But don't rely too heavily on results and websites when choosing a private school, says Lenon. Narrow down the choice according to your needs – if you're seeking full boarding, speak to students to establish how many of them stay for weekends, and find out what activities are available. If your child is mid-ability but loves sport, be wary of overly academic schools – a common mistake made by parents. Some London-based prep schools require pupils to sit entrance exams, though most prep schools don't. At senior level, the Common Entrance exam – or a school's own exam – is often required in year 11 or 13, but don't be too phased. Schools such as Eton look for much higher pass marks whereas others set the bar much lower. "Parents will be able to find a school to suit their child's academic standard," says Lenon.
Of course it's not all about exams, as many parents testify. "It gives something you can't quite put your finger on," says Alison Millar, whose three boys attended the Catholic boarding and day school Downside near Bath. "They will take Downside with them for the rest of their life in terms of the friends they've made and the community. A lot of the monks [who teach] are here for a long time; there's a tremendous sense of continuity."
Perhaps the biggest change that Lenon has witnessed over the past 35 years of teaching in the private sector is a vast improvement in nurturing pupils' wellbeing."When I began, I don't think the words 'pastoral care' were uttered by anybody. Now it's central to school life."
'He's being pushed to his potential'
Ruth Sparkes, owner of Empra, sent her son Matthew, aged 12, to Rookwood School in Andover.
"My husband and I both went to state schools, but I wasn't happy with my local primary – I didn't like the big classes, and they told me they only guaranteed to hear the children read at least once a month. I found that quite shocking.
So when we saw Rookwood and they talked about children reading every day, I thought 'this is what I want'. It's not grand or elitist; it's got a quite scruffy feel but he settled in straight away; it's a very happy, balanced co-educational school, and lots of pupils live nearby.
Facilities are good but it's not known for its sporting prowess, so he plays with his local football team which means he has local friends. My husband is often away and I work long hours so I needed to take away the guilt you feel as a working mother and know he was getting the best; being pushed to his potential."
'A longer school day really helps parents'
Both of Tracie Watson's children, Stephanie aged 14 and Sam aged 16, are educated privately; at St Margaret's School for Girls and at Albyn School, both in Aberdeen.
"We weren't happy with state school. My son was smart but didn't ask for any attention so wasn't getting any, the classes were so big. It wasn't cool to be smart so we moved him when he was 10. At private school students are more supportive and don't tease each other for doing well academically – it's a far more encouraging environment.
My daughter's delighted to be at a girls' school. There's research showing girls do better without the pressure of boys. It's very nurturing – juniors and seniors all play together at break time.
I think the basic education is similar to state school but you are buying opportunities. Success is celebrated and encouraged. Both my children love sport, and my son does a lot of debating. They're encouraged to be very competitive, but in a supportive manner.
My husband is a GP and I'm managing director of a health and safety-based consultancy. If I'd wanted to be a stay-at-home mum we couldn't have afforded it. A longer school day really helps working parents too; the children stay behind to do sports and clubs. Sam wants to be a doctor and school has helped him with relevant volunteering. Stephanie loves sport – she plays hockey, netball and tennis for the school – and wants to be a PE teacher."