In my mind, it was always going to be the silver lining to the credit crunch – that after a few years of austerity, the middle classes would start to question the sense of meekly handing over £30,000 per child, per year, to have him or her educated privately, and begin to view the state sector as a serious alternative. Is that silver lining now glimpse-able?
The estimated cost of educating two children privately, from the age of four to 18, is, we learnt yesterday, half a million pounds. On average. After tax. Ouch. Add to this the dismaying news that, in the past, quite a few prep schools were systematically abusing their small charges, and the current news that leading independent girls’ schools are suffering an epidemic of anorexia, and the whole private-school landscape is beginning to look somewhat pockmarked.
To make matters worse – or better, depending on where you stand – there has been what I call the Tatler Effect, the chattering classes’ prime glossy having recently highlighted a substantial list of state schools – primary and secondary – up and down the country, that its readers would be jolly pleased if their children got into. Yes, Tatler is a bit of fluff, but this sort of accolade is crucial in order to give state education the status – what one might call the dinner-party cachet – that private schools have enjoyed for so long. The notion being simply that if you pay through the nose for it, it’s bound to be good.
For a sector supposedly full of geniuses, private schools have been a bit silly of late, indulging as they have done in a sort of ferocious, facilities arms race in order to woo parents to part with their cash. Vast sports centres, Grecian-style theatres, and five-star running tracks have been tacked on so that parents could be sure their children were having “the best”. As if education ought to be viewed via a sort of Foxtons-irradiated screen charged with the zeal of Rebecca Adlington. Is an Olympic-sized pool really the key to a first-class education?
This real-estate beauty parade may be the private sector’s ultimate downfall; in the past 10 years, costs at top private day-schools have risen hugely, while incomes for the middle classes have, at best, plateaued. Which is fine for the children of Russian oligarchs or those with City bonuses, but for everyone else, perhaps not. Oh, but to give us the feel of everyday folk, we have bursaries, cries the private sector, reaching out into the state sector to pinch its brightest children – and boost the all-important League of Grades at the end of the year.
Of course, now that significant numbers of the well-off are considering state education for their offspring, there has been something of a stampede towards the outstanding ones; estate agents have reported an immediate impact on house prices in the areas around the Tatler‑endorsed schools, and everyone has their tale to tell of queues snaking round the block on open days.
Antony Seldon, the lone voice of reason in the private sector, who has rightly pointed out that our skewed system is not only morally bankrupt but also stunts the overall development of our country, has said that the wealthy ought to pay for places in the outstanding state schools. I think this is unworkable, not least because it would play quite badly with the acknowledged right for children to have free education in this country.
But if the middle classes continue to look towards the state sector, there will be a benefit to all schools, not just a small list of outstanding ones. The whole notion of “state option equals worst option” will start to be eroded, as I believe is starting to happen already. And then, at last, we might arrive at a place where there are properly equal opportunities for every child to have an excellent education in this country, where all children – even in the well‑off areas – are proud to go to their local schools, and where people unthinkingly not only utilise but actively support the state-funded option, much as we do with the NHS. Let’s hope Tatler brings out a supplementary list next year.