After a certain numbers of years living in London it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you are paying through the nose for something it must be of a superior quality. My Scottish mother finds it extremely amusing that I will spend £3.60 on a takeaway coffee. However, paying over the odds becomes a lot more salient when it comes to private school fees. In the clear light of day is it actually worth it? Or can you work the system to your advantage by combining both state and private? Having crossed half of London looking at schools in my job as an Educational Consultant there seems to be four main things that you are acquiring for your child if you choose the private school path.
Of course there are some amazing state schools in London both at primary and secondary level. Secondary schools like Tiffins, Lady Margarets, Henrietta Barnet and Holland Park School are highly regarded and achieve impressive results at A level and GCSEs. Nevertheless, the reality is that in the London schools’ league tables the majority of the top performing schools are private establishments. They have numbers and resources on their side. Classes tend to be small so children get a lot of individual attention. In some schools I have visited pupils have had 1:1 teaching for the whole of their sixth form career due to the more niche subjects they have chosen. Children at private schools also benefit from a large amount of highly skilled and passionate specialists teachers. These specialists cover subjects like Sport, Music, Art, Dance and languages (French, Spanish, Mandarin being popular choices) from as young as 4 years old.
A lecturer at UCL recently informed me that in terms of academic ability there was not an enormous amount of difference between state school children and private school children once the playing fields had been levelled. What really separated the group was the extraordinary confidence that they public school children had. It is impossible not to notice this as a visitor at both primary and secondary schools. At School Open Days, 11 year olds leap onto the stage without a backward glance to address a 200 strong audience. It is not difficult to understand why. Private schools are putting an enormous amount of resources into delivering resilient children who are happy to express their opinions in a variety of settings. Organising Model UN, inter school debates, Young Enterprise Schemes, extravagant drama and musical productions, alongside teaching children a growth mind-set mean that these schools are producing children who have a firm belief that they should be heard.
Facilities and extra-curricular opportunities
The facilities at some of London’s top secondary day schools are staggering. Professionally equipped theatres (North London Collegiate’s has a sunken orchestra pit), recording studios and at least two or three 3D printers are de rigueur. Outside of Zone 1, many of the schools also benefit from fantastic outside space. The entrance to Lady Eleanor Holles is flanked by grass tennis courts, Harrodian’s swimming pool is straight out of a Mr and Mrs Smith hotel and Ibstock pupils are lucky enough to have Richmond Park on their doorstep. The fact that many of Britain’s Olympic team hail from private schools can be no surprise when children have had access to world-class facilities and a wide range of sports from the age of 11. Having said this, schools located more centrally are unable to offer quite the same standard due to space constraints. They tend to bus pupils to large sports grounds and hire West End theatre spaces to put on their plays.
Conversely, when it comes to primary schools state institutions frequently provide better playground space and Early Years outdoor areas than their more expensive competitors. The fact that many inner London schools are squeezed into Edwardian town houses and nurseries into church halls makes for a squashed and higgledy-piggledy layout. State schools, on the other hand, are more often in better-constructed purpose built spaces.
Friends in high places
The final advantage that you are buying for your child by sending them to a private school is the social connections that they are likely to end up making. It is much easier to get an internship in a highly competitive industry if your best friend’s father puts in a good word for you at the private hedge fund he runs. Schools also invest a lot in maintaining connections with their alumnae. This comes in handy when running careers evenings where old boys and girls return to their alma mater to offer advice and meet current pupils.
State till 8 and other variations
When evaluating the choice between state and private many parents will consider a combination of both to get the best of both systems, but does this work? The choice of state to 8 or 11 years old is probably the most popular one as parents choose to save their money for senior school level and make the most of the many excellent primary schools we have in London. However, while these primary schools are often ‘Outstanding’ and will most certainly deliver a happy, challenging and creative education the reality is private junior or prep schools will get many more children into the most prestigious independent senior schools as they prepare specifically for entrance examinations. One of the biggest challenges for state schools particularly at primary level is the class sizes (30 on average) and the huge range of abilities that have to be catered for by one class teacher. Children entering from state school environments at 8 or 11+ will most probably need a substantial amount of tutoring in the year leading up to examination to become familiar with independent school standards (on average two terms ahead of the average primary school), exam technique and subjects like verbal and no-verbal reasoning.
Alternatively, there is a very valid argument that favours independent schooling at junior level, thus ensuring a secure foundation in reading, writing and mathematics. With this grounding children can then take their pick from the highest attaining local secondary schools. Furthermore, they may also benefit from the supposed bias against private school entrance to Britain’s elite universities.
Are they worth it?
So with these factors in mind it is tempting to conclude that a private school education is worth the hefty price tag. The answer to this is yes and no. If you’re son or daughter is lucky enough to get into one of the big names, King’s College Wimbledon, St Paul’s, Godolphin & Latymer, they are suited to the school and your family can still afford to eat at the end of the day, then you can feel safe in the knowledge that you are spending your money on an incredible education. However, if you are considering less established and well-known schools you need to look a bit more carefully. I have seen lots of amazing schools in this category but also many that quite frankly are not worth the money. I have seen my fair share of basement classrooms with no windows, soulless buildings (during one memorable school tour a fellow parent commented the school was so depressing she couldn’t complete the tour), boisterous classes where it is difficult to tell quite who is in charge and several schools with no playground space at all. For most people £20,000 a year plus is an extraordinary amount of money so if you are going to spend it make sure you are getting what you want out of it and don’t be fooled by the belief that just because it’s expensive it must be worth it.
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By Chloe Berry
Chloe has an Undergraduate Degree from Edinburgh University and a Post Graduate Degree from King’s College London. She spent five years working at Garden House School in Chelsea, during which time she gained her PGCE qualification in Primary Education and OCR Level 5 Diploma in Specific Learning Difficulties. Chloe is an experienced tutor and assessor for 11+ common entrance and works as the school consultant at SH Nursery Consultancy.