Are the school fees worth it?

I have been meaning to write this post for a very long time, mainly because I get asked by so many friends with young children what my opinion is on state schools vs private schools. This is because as my finances have fluctuated and my moves around the country have demanded my children have spent time at both private and state schools in both junior and senior classes, and even a brief spell of being home-educated.

Tonight I am writing it because I read this article. This is the second suicide over school fees in the last year that I have heard of, the first was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends who threw herself under a train – these are not cries for help, these are definitive decisions to end life.

I am writing this post for those with young children looking ahead to their foray into education, rather than those freaking out about how they can continue to afford the fees and whether they should/could/can send their children to state school. (To the latter, I say do it, it is fine – really fine. Please don’t be so worried about how your children will cope, mine have coped with all manner of moves and are better children for it. You do need to take time over the transition and be interested and do your homework on all school availabilities. And if you can only get your child into the school you are least fond of immediately, well the education system splits neatly into chunks of 3-4 years for each important bit, so there will only be a limited period of time before you can make another choice. Also, whatever the school does not provide, you can – and should).

If you are here because you are feeling suicidal or desperate, please do think about seeking support from people like the Samaritans or a doctor – the words here will only calm fears about the future in state education (which really is fine).

The history, why I consider myself in a decent position to offer advice, skip this section if you don’t care and you just want the answer

I went to private school, and I lived in fear of being sent to state school – it was indeed a threat if I misbehaved. I hated school, I was an OK student and I can honestly say that those I met there have had no effect whatsoever on my employment since I left school – no old girl network here.

In my naivety, before I had children, I thought that my ideal scenario was to have my children educated in the state sector in junior school, then privately at senior level when they needed to knuckle down and pass exams – I was a bit concerned as I thought state schools would not have any sports (a myth) but that was OK.

Once I started breeding I worried more, and hell-bent on following my pre-motherhood commitment to my children and state school I did the terrible thing of hunting down the poshest one I could find and begged for them to accept my child. They did for nursery but not for reception, I put her in pretty certain that they would change their mind and let her into reception. They didn’t, so she had to move to a different school, new kids. It wasn’t posh but it was great, the Mums and kids were lovely, the teachers were fab, some a bit meh, but mainly good (same everywhere!). What was I playing at?

I then moved and had a second child and sent them both to the local, local school having learned my lesson. It was fine, they taught the children and both my children thrived. Then some worrying things happened, they stopped teaching maths for two terms – I am not sure why, and I received a letter from the school with photos of the parents who were banned from the playground. Worrying, I thought, and moved them both to another state school, a little further away. They were both supremely happy there and learned well, associated well with other children, loved their teachers and so on and so forth.

Then we moved again – out of London this time and mid-way through the academic year. I could get one child into the local state school but not the other. Bearing in mind I was working in London every day at that time, I couldn’t cope with this, so I found them both a place at the local Private school. A small thing with reasonably low fees – fees in junior school are affordable (if you work a bit extra or take the job you don’t like but has a higher income, or you forego holidays, or whatever). It was very nice, although I was not comfortable in the playground really, as people far more wealthy than me really belonged there and I was a working Mum so not at the gym or coffee mornings – but the children were very happy and the teachers were great. The state school they had been at previously was better, better headmaster, better care for the children – but the education was good and they learned Latin, Rah!

Then senior school loomed for my eldest, and my silly brain still fixated on the importance of private senior school and the headmaster recommended a school for us. We went to see it and fell in love with it. The grounds, the building, the stuff on offer. The tea and champagne. The marketing events the school put on for us prospective parents was impressive. I would do anything to send my child there. Anything! Sell my soul if I had to, starve – nothing mattered more than my daughter being able to experience this education. We signed up, she went.

From the day she stepped into that school all marketing efforts ended abruptly. There was silence. I had to really struggle to find out what she was doing during her lessons, how she was faring at school. Her pals argued over what flooring they had on their respective tennis courts. The japanese lessons turned out to be one a term. The smiling head mistress vanished. She was in some sort of system, one I did not understand and I felt like I had lost her – but I knew she was having the best education ever, so I had to put up with it.

She seemed happy enough and so I was devastated when I lost one of my jobs and I knew I would not be able to boost my income in the current climate in order to pay school fees. These school fees had dominated my life, every single minute of every single day I was worried about school fees – where the next ones were coming from. I spoke to the school who seemed sympathetic and asked me to go and see them just before the beginning of the following academic year where we would work out a good plan.

Two days before school was due to begin I attended the meeting. Gone was the glorious reception, the tea and biscuits, the attentive staff – instead I sat outside the bursar’s office in a cold, drafty area of the school I had never seen. When invited in the conversation was short: full fees by the first day of term (the following Monday) or she would not be allowed on the premises.

This was her second year of senior school, I had less than a week to get her into a school and to explain to her that she was not going back.

Fretting and actually shaking I drove to the nearest school and begged them. They have no control over applications, the council do that and so I began the process of getting her into a local school to me – easier when I was not trying to find a place for two, but impossible at the very end of the Summer holidays, days before terms were due to begin in schools across the country.

I had no choice but to keep her at home. My Mum is a teacher and she tutored her for a while, keeping her at her house, I did my best to ensure she was happy and healthy – she was absolutely delirious with happiness. Had really hated her private senior school but not said anything as I was so delighted with it, and as a result being freed was the best thing that could have happened to her.

Eventually she got a place in a school quite far away from us, but I took her there most days until a place came up more locally. Two terms later she was offered a place in another school much closer to us, we moved her and she is unspeakably happy. The school is absolutely brilliant. A couple of dodgy teachers but that is OK, I help her with those subject areas. Communication between me and them is open and perfect. She has great friends, is hugely comfortable and self-assured having been to SO many schools, with SO many people! And she is doing well. The best she can in subjects she loves, and that is good enough for me.

My youngest meanwhile stayed in the other junior private school, with affordable fees (still wincey but there was little reason to move her) until she started being bullied – badly. The school’s attitude was not awesome and I hated dropping her at school, feeling like I was delivering her into the hands of hell – and paying for the privilege. So I took her out and put her into the local school that has many children who will be going to her sister’s school (and where she is registered to go, fingers crossed she gets in!). Again, same thing, she transitioned beautifully, the state school welcomed her so fully, communication is constant and they even ran an assembly and awareness session for the children on bullying. She has been there for just over 1/2 a term now, this is her second and she moved half way through last term, and you would not know the difference. Except that she is smiling, bouncy, happy and relaxed. The homework has eased up and she adores her teachers and new friends.

Why did I do it? All those years… all that money – because I believed a myth.

Skip to here if you just want the answer

PS My eldest is also often asked by worried parents of young babies. She says this (ish, this is me summarising her words): Going to private junior school for a bit taught me how to work hard, we had so much homework, lessons and the day was crammed. But definitely not at senior school. For her? She would never send her children to private school, ever. The second one feels the same.

Myth busting:

No sports in state schools – not true

No clubs in state schools – not true and they are often free/low cost

No exciting school trips in state school – not true, youngest is off skiing next week and eldest is off to Paris fashion week next year

State school children are rude – not true, indeed I find them often more polite than their privately educated peers

They don’t have a varied curriculum in state school – not true, but some of the options are optional and extra to the school hours

For more myth-busting, see my recent post that expands on this list

20 responses

  1. Great article Emms, couldn’t agree more! Ben has thrived through a totally amazing primary state school education and is now at the beginning of his state school secondary education which so far, is also seeming pretty fab! The communication throughout has been brilliant and I have a well balanced, well mannered, sociable, eloquent child who loves life, loves school and takes every opportunity on offer to him! I believe it’s mostly about what we as parents do to supplement their education that forms the basis for their successes in adulthood rather than throwing tens of thousands of pounds at their education.

  2. You went to private school! Had I known I would bow and scrape whenever I met you.Seriously thouygh, I agree with Cheryl. Given that you don’t live on a sink estate, involved parents outweigh any supposed disadvantage of larger classes and lack of skiing trips at half-term.

  3. This was a really interesting read. I’m 18 and have been privately educated since year 9. Before that, I was at a state primary and middle school. My parents did work incredibly hard for my school fees, though they were lucky in their jobs remaining stable, from 2008 until now, my last year of Sixth Form. Firstly, I love where I go to school, and whilst I haven’t changed schools much, I would have no reason to ever change to a different school from my current one. Having gone through years of state education, I also have my comments on that. The state school I went to was also lovely, friendly and had great teachers. Some of the other students were a little dodgy, but that’s a given. Most were lovely. With any school, I firmly believe it’s a case of shopping around. Whilst I loved my state school, I know people in other ones both near here and in other parts of the country, and whilst some also sound great, others sadden and disappoint me. I’m sure private schools can be the same, though.

    I think a key difference is that whilst the education itself might be no better, the work ethic is. For those motivated students, good grades are quite achievable at a state school. I, however, lack motivation. I could kick myself for it, but regardless, I need that extra push. I found that private school has really helped me with that, as there is a combination of a school that is paid to really care for your children, and children whose parents pay collosal amounts for their school fees.

    However, I think there’s also a need to get private education right. Some private schools are obsessed with grades and work, and it sounds like you landed with a couple that were like that, who just wanted to turn the kids into workaholics. I know exactly what you mean, and in fact when my parents were looking at schools for my sister and I years ago, they were actually recommended my current school by a student at another school because they “have a lot more fun” at mine. That’s where it gets sad, and whilst I believe a private education is a great way of ensuring a healthy, happy and well-educated child, there are some private schools who do it completely wrong. I’d much rather good grades, a good time, and a good life, rather than excellent grades but no life whatsoever.

    Indeed, state schools can also offer all the positive aspects of private school above, but in my experience that requires a lot more looking around. At the end of the day I think private education is great if you can afford it, but state education is also perfectly fine (it’s by no means the evil dump full of scum which people make it out to be). A good education isn’t nessecarily about money, it’s about the extent to which parents care. Rather than just send their child to whatever school is nearest, if they shop around and find a lovely state school, which will provide a safe and fun, yet working environment, then they should have every confidence their child will be successful. Just my 2p.

    • Thank you for posting this blog, Chris. I so totally can understand why parents get into a state of desperation, believing they are letting their children and family down so much that they will struggle unfairly because of their failure to earn some (A LOT) of money and pay fees. Hopefully by reading your blog post and this one they will see some hope and not feel so cornered by the choices left – which are many!

  4. Hi Emma, loving your writing. I am a parent of two gifted and talented children. I only found this out after enroling them at a government , public school. At the private school it was … No, no, gifted ness is bought and paid for. You pay us and then we will DECIDE how smart your child is. The bullying exists much more because the parents don’t spend as much time with their children because they are busy working to pay the fees. Get a proper estimate of your child’s intellect, without having to pay for it.

    • That is very moving and how lovely, I am glad your children are happy too! You know, you just reminded me!!! When I moved to the private school (both to the junior one) they asked me to get my youngest assessed for learning difficulties (at a v expensive learning difficulties assessment centre) as they were not sure whether she was so behind because she “went to state school” or because there was a problem. For years I carried around this thick assessment folder so that her teachers in the private school could learn how to teach her as she was ‘slow’. Further assessments have debunked all that and whilst she is taking her time in catching on she is pretty much on a par with everyone now. State school (current one) gives her free additional maths support, but they are not too concerned. Some basics seem to be missing that they are busy filling in. So… gah!! I have SO much I could write about this 🙂 I shall make a list! And thank you for your kind words x

  5. I’m glad to hear that your youngest is happy at her new school. I remember your FB post about her being bullied and the school not taking it seriously. My daughter’s (state) primary takes bullying very seriously. They have two members of staff who are available to work with kids and parents on bullying and other behavioural and emotional issues. There is also a weekly drop-in where you can discuss any concerns about your child, relating to bullying or anything else. As a result, bullying doesn’t seem to be a problem in her school.

    There are also various after-school clubs offering yoga, street dance, football and drama. Plus, breakfast, after school and holiday playscheme. These all cost extra but the prices are modest, ie, £20 for holiday playscheme

  6. This is a really interesting, frank, well written post. I am a working Mum and we are about to move house out of London. I have been worrying about the school change and often feel the guilt that is showered on us busy parents. I think the best thing a parent can do if they care about a child’s education is spend time working with them. Your post made me feel less guilty and happier with my choices. I have always harboured impossible aspirations to have my children privately educated because my own state education was shocking, however as I am growing up I am discovering many private educated were just as bad. I like your daughter’s comment about being taught how to work hard. That is an important thing and something a parent can do just as well as a school. Thank-you for the post.

  7. Pingback: The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime | Teaching: Leading Learning

  8. Pingback: Myth-busting State schools vs Private schools | Emma Mulqueeny

  9. It’s nothing short of horrifying to me that there are people who will throw themself under a train because they might have to forego a private education for their kids. Putting aside the correlation of grinding a rail network to a halt for selfish reasons with the snobbishness of insisting on private school, are there really people in the world who think that state schools are worth dying over?

    My mum got hit by a car on the way to an appeal against a catchment area when it was time for me to go to secondary school. If that hadn’t happened I would probably have ended up in a different school, but still a state school nonetheless. It’s one thing to have an accident dashing to a meeting to fight for your child’s best interests but I can’t get my head around robbing a child of their Mum over private school. Madness.

    My greater fear would be our daughter (she’s half-American) going to school in the US, where schoolkids seem to represent target practice for lunatics, nowadays.

  10. Emma, it’s also been my experience of seeing private schools tell some single mothers that their child has this or that learning issue. It’s not right to do this. I had someone tell me lily needed help and I said…. How many students does the learning disorder teacher need to see to justify her position financially. Well there is nothing wrong with my girl so find someone else to pick on.

  11. Ps. And I’m not a single mother but I’m just saying that these schools will pick on a minority group, or the weak. Stay confident and strong. You are so smart, your kids will be champions.

  12. Thank you for this. I sought a private school eductation for my eldest son nearly 20 years ago to fulfil the myth for me and his grandfather and because i wasn’t paying the fees. When his younger brother started at the same school in the prep department 8 years later, still fuelled by the myth, I put him through hell – bad teaching, bullying by teachers until his hair started falling out due to stress. I decided that if he didn’t like school, I didn’t need to spend the best part of £10k a year for him to be miserable – we could get that for free!! I removed him at the end of year 5 and put him straight back into the year 5 class at the junior school where he had attended the infants (for last 2 weeks of summer term) and where his 2 younger brothers attended. He has shone in the state sector – he has 13 GCSEs most at A*, A and B, is predicted 3 very good A levels and has an unconditional place at his first choice uni. None of this would he have achieved had he stayed where he was – indeed his best friend from those days got an academic scholarship to the senior school and was so unsuited to the hothousing, he dropped out of education entirely with only a handful of mediocre gcses!

  13. Of the six schools I attended (we moved a lot due to parents being teachers), two were private schools. I’d agree with your observations that there are no significant differences in the quality of education and activities.

    However, I’d say that the biggest difference for me was class size. The two years I had in private education were massively beneficial as the increased contact with the teacher was what I needed to improve my core English and science skills. Apart from that, I personally made much better friends in the state schools and found them much more welcoming.

  14. I read your article with great interest (and hope). I had googled “sending your child from private to state school”. I am having to take my son out of his lovely private school with a class size of 15 and send him back to state school (where he started) because of my marriage breakdown. I have contemplated using up the last of my savings to send him to a private senior school but however much I scrimp and save and sacrifice, I would struggle to afford it. However I feel like a terrible parent as I feel as if I am letting him down. He is a sensitive, sweet and quite shy boy and I am worried that the size and perhaps lack of discipline in state schools will mean he will be swallowed up and not flourish. I regret sending him their in the first place, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I don’t want to give up on his chances of getting a first class education therefore reading your article helped me feel better – a bit. My preference would be for private school but not because I think you get a better education but because the atmosphere, discipline and smaller class sizes feel better. It is such a shame that so many parents feel like they are letting their children down if they don’t put them into private school. It is ridiculous and no other country in Europe has this problem, so why do we?

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