Myth-busting State schools vs Private schools

The post I wrote on Friday in response to a number of suicides in recent years by parents unable to keep up with school fees has struck a chord. I wrote it because I wanted parents of the future to have something to read that gave the detail of experience in both private and state schools – hopefully to allay their fears and prevent them feeling death was the only way out. As the blog post spread so I started getting common (mis-held) beliefs flung at me on Facebook and Twitter and so I put together a bit of a list, one that I think needs its own place – please do add to these in the comments:

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

Single sex education is important – whilst true that boys and girls learn at different speeds and in different ways, I have found that my own single-sex schooling has left me hugely debilitated in understanding how my male colleagues communicate, learn and operate. In society communication and empathy, team working and collaboration are intrinsically more important than what you know over the life-span of your career. You can learn facts and skills, you cannot “learn” how people work – this is a life-skill picked up through co-education from 0-18

State school is only for the mediocre – not true, there are gifted and talented programmes UK-wide for state-educated kids and tailored learning for those who need help, for free (as documented here in Chris’s fabulous post). In fact tailored learning is better in state schools as private schools tend to focus on the high-achievers, I had to pay for extra tuition in private school for both my ‘average’ children, on top of the school fees

Private school education buys you better jobs – I believe that this is dying out, it is rare now for anyone over the age of 21 to be asked socially or in any context outside of CV discussions what type of school they went to. The Bullingdon Club embarrassment of the current government has meant this is risible rather than socially acceptable

Children moving from private school to state school will be bullied – I have not found this to be true, indeed the state school kids were far more accepting than the private school kids (and teachers) when I moved my children from state to private

Private school teachers are better – not true… indeed, as private schools are charities, (they are and this is a separate post in itself!), they have far more autonomy over who they hire. Teachers in private schools are not required to have teaching qualifications, (which could indeed be viewed as a good thing), but state school teachers are required to go through far more rigorous testing on their methods and standards. State school teachers are also often better supported through National programmes

Individual pupil care is better in private schools – please don’t believe this. In my experience in private schools there is an inescapable monetary value placed on each child. For example, parents of those children with younger siblings in the school or about to join the school receive greater attention than those with one child nearing the end of their time (and no sibling school fees in sight); high-net-worth parents also receive greater attention and privilege.

Smaller classes in private schools – whilst it is true that private schools do have smaller numbers of children per year, gone are the days of massive state school classes. What tends to happen now is smaller classes in lessons and more year groups per year. So on the whole there are more pupils in state schools, this does not affect the actual class sizes for lessons. For example, in my eldest’s school there are eight groups in year 10, within these groups there are 20-30 kids, their lessons are tailored to skills – so in each lesson within their year group, say Maths, there will be on average 15-20 kids in a classroom, with some lessons as small as seven kids. At my youngest’s school there are three year groups in Year 6, in her class though there are 16 kids.

This all looks like I am taking a massive swipe at private schools. I am not, I don’t think they should exist, I agree with Chris that we should be looking to emulate Finland’s model of education with a fully nationalised system – but I have nothing against the teachers, kids or heads currently living the publicly-educated life, but what I am keen to do is debunk the urban legends that damage the state school education reputation, and lead terrified, naive parents to take their own lives rather than send their children to state school.

13 responses

  1. Pingback: Are the school fees worth it? | Emma Mulqueeny

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

  3. Very good post Emma. My experience was state comprehensive school, which I enjoyed and did well at – but wasn’t put under huge pressure. I think that wouldn’t have helped me. My wife went to a private school – and hated it, largely due to pressure to achieve high grades. The latter resulted in being forced to drop an A level that she was not doing well in – because they were concerned about the school’s results.

    My wife subsequently became a state school teacher. Having made friends with any number of teachers at different schools, what I have observed is that the entire tone and success or otherwise at the school is completely set by the Head (surprisingly so, to me). Schools with good heads tend to be good from my observation. Bad/weak Heads allow bullying – of pupils and teachers. (I have no idea whether proper research backs up my observation).

  4. I went to a co-educational state school with a terrible reputation (six arson attacks in the first two years and later put into special measures). My wife went to a prestigious catholic girls school which she still criticises for its policy of religion over education 15 years later. A friend of a friend who only knew me after university, and went to a very expensive private school, insisted to my wife that I (like him) was also a product of the private school system. Megan very much enjoyed the look on his face when I told him the reality. State school kids aren’t stupid and see more of the real world by the age of 16 than most Bullingdon boys will by the age of 30. And formal education is, in the end, just a piece of paper. One which ceases to have much utility about 18 months after graduating.

  5. Interesting post Emma, but I think the categorical denial over sport, clubs and trips are a bit broad brush. My kids attend a state primary where there are no after school clubs, virtually no sport (twice a week pe in the room in which they have their lunch…. not what I would call sport) and one trip a year to a wildlife park or similar. I think this is all pathetic and I wouldn’t defend it over the private sector. The core education they’re getting is probably similar except for the size of the classes, but I have no doubt they are missing out in terms of extra curricular activity. It sounds as though your kids are luckier….. and incidentally I (and some other parents) are desperately trying to increase the “luck” of our own children by trying to force the headmistress to take on more out of hours activity (currently only one teacher does anything). It seems it is totally up to the head though since another school in our area has 15 after school clubs per week….. in a one form entry school.

    I was privately educated in a fantastic school until I was 16 and then went to a boys public school for the 6th form and it was terrible…. I would have been much better off in the state sector. There are good and bad private schools, just as there are good and bad state schools. Lot’s of the issues this brings up though are about our class system rather than our education system. Is it only the perceived threat of a worse education which is driving parents to suicide? I think not. There is much more to it than education. People are inevitably scared of what they don’t know and fear all sorts of things which may or may not be true. They may also know that all of their friends send their kids to private schools and feel they will be ostracised – which again, may or may not be true. It’s very complex, but no suicide will ever be purely about education.

    • Yes I am sure you are right. Hard to attribute the cause over and above notes about pressures of fees. And my opinion is subjective and based on personal experience. The heads make a huge difference in all schools, state and private and all power to you head-lobbying elbow!

  6. The problem with your article and the argument/debate is that the variance and range of ‘quality’ eg. number of clubs, opportunities, class sizes, teacher experience in years per 10 teachers etc etc, is pretty narrow in private schools.

    Typically attainment is high and most students go to Russell Group Universities. Where as for state schools, you could be in the same county and have one school that offers few opportunities for academic excellence within a few miles of another state school that is known for sending 10% of it’s leavers to Oxbridge. The problem with your argument is that it is untrue for some schools. There are poor state schools out there. Yes, there are great ones, but there are many poor ones. What we should be improving is the accessibility of quality information for parents – which is currently at best an Ofsted report – which is frankly not a good enough indicator of quality to make a choice.

  7. Totally off topic, I’ve just noticed your involvement in Young Rewired State….. one of the Clubs I’m hoping to get our primary school doing is Code Club…. I’m a business analyst in IT (or was until I had kids and found that IT is not very open to people taking long periods out, particularly if their previous work has been international… but that’s a whole other story) and so could probably keep up with the scratch and javascript they’ll be learning and I’ve been talking with someone about getting together a more advanced syllabus for secondary using python…… anyhow, just wondering what your thoughts are on Code Club…. good to keep it as a club? or should we be trying to do it in school IT time to insure the the girls are involved? Is the Code Club syllabus good? (there is only a term to go on so far and it’s going to be scratch for a couple of terms I think) Any other thoughts on girlifying it? I’m hoping that I’ll be able to sell the benefits to the girls, but maybe I’m deluded 😉 Haven’t tried yet.

  8. Having taught in both state and private schools, I’d always send my kids to state. The quality of teaching is much higher, you just have to look at the value added scores to see that. These scores measure how much students increase on their expectations as a result of the education they receive.

  9. A very good article. I have taught in state and private schools and the proof of the pudding is int he eating. Private schools top all the results lists by far. Private schools do sport – and lots of it as opposed to the occasional football or netball match in local schools. I think many of your arguments about private schools do lots of sports and lots of options while some state schools may do some sport and go on some trips and put on the occasional show.

    I have taught at state schools who have no green field sites and have 3 classes for their sixth form and classes of over 30. I taught recently at a celebrated school with excellent inspections and a decorated head master and year7 an 8 did not have separate teachers for most class so was similar to a primary teacher teaching nearly everything and only at yr 9 did they have specialist teachers. Another school I went to had 20 plus classroom supervisors who took classes for year 7 and 8 whose lessons were set by department heads. The only teacher they saw was in registration as it was a legal document and then not again until year 9. Massaging figures such as not entering hundreds of children for exams is another ploy. There is a programme called educating Yorkshire and one on harrow school– the two opposites and look at the difference in level of respect and also the fire-fighting and social work – interfering of state school teachers who recently seemed to revel in two Asian girls falling out (yes we all knew they would make up – as happens) and interfered while not letting them sort it out themselves, Harrow encourages older children to take responsibility and HELP the younger ones. OK two extremes but private schools sometimes employs specialist non qualified teachers where many qualified teachers or B Eds had lower standards to get on to their course i.e if they could not get on a BA BSc BEng course they would do a BEd. Many of these teachers lack specialist knowledge and a mate who is a maths teacher admitted that while he was in between jobs he went to a state school and was immediately put in charge a further maths A level set because not one of the staff was comfortable teaching it as they did not understand it – their base level of maths was not good enough and would have to re learn it!

    Many kids at private schools are very smart and push the teachers to their limits and if you are not up to it, you will be out pretty quickly. Mot normal private schools are not selective but get very good results with what they take in. Many take in SEN no statemented kids because the state sector cannot provide for them. I know plenty of kids and families in this predicament. Some private schools – usually HMC school (the elite public school’s like Eton etc) will get rid of student who are not at A grade level at year 9 and is why they maintain high standards and are the best. Many other privates schools can pick them up from here and make a difference and this is a niche market.

    There is a big difference between private schools and then differences between state schools but overall – private schools usually have good facilities, wonderful grounds and classroom to teach in – many are stately homes, castles or the like – and provide a nice environment to work it and the children mostly want to learn as they don’t want to stand out for bad reasons. The pastoral care at such schools allows the teachers and pupils to built relationships as they may be their geography teacher but also their rugby coach, choir master and house master as well and the kids appreciate that their teachers put so much time into their education and care about what they make of themselves.

  10. There are, in the opinion of a year 11 comprehensive boy, two faults worthy of note:
    ‘No sports in state schools – not true’ – I completely concur; sport in state schools is available and encouraged. In my school, though, it is the teaching of PE that is the issue. Teachers are far too serious and self-righteous.
    ‘State school children are rude – not true, indeed I find them often more polite than their privately educated peers’. I am not an authority on this, for obvious reasons, but I have encountered a lot of prejudice against private education. When I mention public schools, the reply is often ‘I don’t like the people’ or somesuch.

    Other than that, I agree for the most part with you, especially regarding the trips and single-sex education.

  11. I work in the NHS trying to help people with various mental health issues – I also attended state comprehensive school and I absolutely hated it – My self esteem took many years to slowly recover from the obvious and often subtle oppressions that exist within the school system. In fact I still struggle with issues related to self esteem because of it.

    for many years now I have been assessing around 3 people every day for access to the NHS service I work for and I’d say that 80% of people had a terrible time at school or were harmed by it in some way. It seems to me that the school system is one of the ways that the government and the ruling classes manage to control aspects of society, by deciding what and how they want us to absorb, with the lofty goal of getting a job and start paying taxes – from my experience I’d also say that working jobs for the majority of our lives is also a significant cause and maintainer of mental and physical health problems within society and I like the New Economics Foundation proposal of a 21 hour working week.

    Sis often one of the first places that in order to survive you have to construct some sort of social façade to get through it and deny your own personality – I have had the misfortune of watching my daughter work her way through this awful system and not once have I heard her talk about it being inspirational or exciting – I think Ken Robinsons TED talk titled do schools kill creativity and also the work by John taylor Gatto are very illuminating.

    If I had the time, the energy and access to resources needed I would have home schooled – get your children’s minds away from the government if you can – surely by now it is glaringly obvious who they really work for – if in doubt try reading the Oxfam report working for the few and many other reports and publications that tell us this nonsense has to be stopped.

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