So, during my time in education as both student and teacher, I have attended almost every kind of school… C of E voluntary aided, secondary modern (not sure what the new term for these kinds of schools is), comprehensive, academy, private boarding school and private day school. The only type i’ve missed, i think, is state grammar – although my brother attended one. This has thrown up quite a lot of questions about which kind of education is ‘best’. Obviously a lot of it is down to your political viewpoint and ‘social conscience’ – a phrase my mother is a big fan of. In the last few years however, i’ve gone from being a supporter of private education to being firmly on the fence about it – probably with one leg dangling in the ‘against’ field.
I was a child who loved to read books about little girls being sent to boarding school, having sleepovers in dormitories, sneaking into the kitchens for a midnight feast, and causing some mild mischief with their school chums. I knew that financially it wasn’t possible, but I longed to be sent away to school, or to attend our town’s prestigious public school. When one of my good friends’ grandparents offered to pay for her to attend, I had to try and contain my jealousy. In the end, she hated it. I thought she was mad. How could she not appreciate all the opportunities such an education offered her? I would have loved the chance to learn in smaller classes, with better facilities, and teachers who were truly experts in their subjects.
However, when the chance finally came for me to attend one of these exclusive establishments (albeit as a staff member), I found the reality was not what i had anticipated. Fresh out of university, and wondering what I could possibly do with a music degree that wasn’t admin, I was offered a job at a local boarding school as ‘Musician in Residence’. It involved living on site, helping in the boarding houses, and getting involved in the musical life of the school. Great, I thought. A chance to use my subject knowledge, encourage others to take up music, and work in a sociable environment. Whilst there were many aspects of life at boarding school that i loved – good quality food, a really strong sense of school community, and a fantastic array of musical opportunities – I couldn’t help becoming frustrated at the sense of entitlement of the students. Their school offered them so much, and yet many of them had no appreciation of how lucky they were. There were of course those who worked extremely hard, said ‘thank you’ at the end of every lesson, and had a real sense of just how hard their parents worked to be able to send them to such a school, and these were the students for whom the staff were more than willing to go the extra mile. But equally there were those who did the bare minimum of work, blamed the school if their grades weren’t as good as they should be, and frequently wasted their parents money by missing paid-for extra tuition or activities. There were those who ordered take-away food every night, despite (actually rather good) food being provided for them, and those who felt they could behave how they wanted as they were paying to be there. It’s the same (to a lesser degree) in a private day school. The fees aren’t so extortionate, but the attitude of many students that ‘You have to make sure I’ll do well in my exams or my parents will stop giving you money’ still exists.
I suppose if I had got my wish and attended such a school as a student, I might have (probably would have) loved every minute of it, but equally I don’t think i’d have learnt to stand on my own two feet quite so well. One aspect of private school life which stood out to me was the fact that there’s always someone on your back, making sure you do your homework / coursework / revision, in some cases literally sitting down and doing it with you. By the time I got to Sixth Form this definitely wasn’t the case – if i wanted to do well, I had to make sure i had the self discipline to do my work. And that set me up well for university, where you have to be an independent learner to get anywhere.
Alongside this, as a teacher there’s the slightly soul-destroying notion that the school is a business first and a school second. The head teacher in my final PGCE placement school made no secret of the fact that in the private sector, education is all a numbers game. He would proudly state at each staff meeting how many more students were coming into year 7 than the previous year, and how much more money this equates to. Open days in private schools are not about inspiring students to learn, they’re about schmoozing wealthy parents and convincing them to invest their money in your school, even if you feel the school would not be a good fit for their child. And that makes me feel really uneasy. It goes against all of the reasons I became a teacher, and it feels dishonest.
And whilst when i was younger i had a romanticised view of private school, as an adult I have begun to resent that the opportunities I see on a daily basis weren’t open to me as a child. It’s ironic that in a nation known for our sense of fair play, we’re so proud of an education system which succeeds in upholding the class divide. Sure it has history, but not all traditions are worth keeping purely for traditions sake. Take slavery, for example.
I’m starting to think that if private schools didn’t exist, there would be more incentive for those with the money / power in our society – most of whom send their children to private schools – to take an active interest in our state education provision. It also seems likely that in order to benefit the education of their own children, there would be more individual donations to state schools, allowing state educational establishments to benefit from the nepotism and philanthropism that has been present in the private sector for hundreds of years. Admittedly, this might come at the cost of some of the wealthier / more influential parents trying to pull rank with the school’s senior staff, but this already happens to a certain degree anyway.
As Labour politician Dianne Abbott discovered, this debate becomes even more complicated when it involves your own children:
“Private schools prop up the class system in society. It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school. But I had to choose between my reputation as a politician and my son.”
When it comes to my own children, I’m really going to struggle. There’s a part of me that wants them to have all of the opportunities that I didn’t have, and which undeniably exist in the private sector. But at the same time, I’m convinced that they should be able to be successful in whatever their chosen path without being the lucky few who are able to afford private education, and reinforcing the system. Of course every parent wants the best for their children, and state school provision can vary enormously from area to area – it’s often a safer bet to opt for private education, if your conscience and budget will allow it.
But for now, I’m determined to work in the state sector, and fight for all children to get the best education they possibly can.