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Private schools worse than State schools – unless it’s drugs you’re after. Discuss

Posted on 16 November 2009 | 12:11pm

Well, we got a good little debate going yesterday on the back of my blog on Fiona’s exchanges with Toby Young on Sky News over his plans to set up a new school.

Amid the differences of opinion btween them was a shared disdain for the angst of middle-class parents who support State education in theory but in practice believe that their children are so special and so different that they have to go private.

This is an angst common to many media people, and has a substantial skewing effect on coverage of state schools, which in turn fuels the angst, which in turn leads to more parents feeling they have to go private, which in turn weakens the support for, commitment to, and parental commitment within State schools.

So today I would like to give over the blog to a contribution on Facebook yesterday, from someone called Nicki Hodges.

‘I have three children in state schools,’ she says. ‘All doing very well. My nine-year-old has a reading age of 11 and four months; my 15-year-old is applying to do the International Baccu(something) at Sixth Form. They’ve been to very ordinary East London state schools and are doing really well. This fuss middle-class people make is just because they don’t  want their children going to school with hoodies, shock horror. In fact, there is far less of a drugs problems at state schools, with pushers targeting the private kids who have more money.’

Interesting observation. Sort of makes sense, in a market economy kind of way. Meanwhile, having had two children get to good universities via local state schools, from nursery to secondary, and a third well on the way, I am in no doubt that inner city comprehensives, for all the challenges, give kids the opportunities to be far more rounded and grounded than do the schools that so many middle-class parents skimp and save for in the belief they are buying a better education.

  • Nick

    Some parents choose to spend the little spare cash this Labour Govt has left them with on fags and booze. Others in the bookies. Others on tickets for Burnley’s matches. Some are sufficiently interested/worried in their kids education to reject the famous Fiona Millar Theory- namely that one size fits all- and make sacrifices to enable their kids to go private.

    Good luck to them.

  • Andrew Spooner


    Your comments are very laudable on private v state – it’s just a shame ex-Labour front bench ministers (Ruth Kelly et al) are at odds with you…

  • Frank

    I don’t have children and wasn’t even brought up in this country until I came here to do a graduate degree, but I do have a reflection on your post after 10 years in London.

    I see many parents and their children around me and I agree with you on the quality of their education: Despite much middle-class angst, children educated in state schools can be as good at any subject as their privately-educated counterparts.

    But Britain is ‘special’ (or should that be: ‘remarkable’ or ‘regrettable’) in one way: It has a deeply engrained class culture, in which a young adult with a cv that says ‘Eton’, ‘Harrow’ or any other marker showing his class will always be treated differently, regardless of his or her intrinsic talents or abilities.

    For me, the key reason why British parents want to send their children to private rather than state schools is not that they fear the quality of the education their children will get, but that they want to give their children the best possible start in life and know, consciously or not, that a private education gives them a ‘brand’ that will put them, albeit by prejudice, ahead of their contemporaries.

    No doubt there’s some interesting micro-economic model to be constructed that would prove this point, but tell me if you understand the mechanism I’m getting at. I liked the Brel show, by the way.

  • Colin Morley

    My three children went through state education, but I have to put my hand on my heart and say that had I been able to afford it I would have considered private education. That isn’t because I don’t believe in state education – I went through it myself without too many scars. It’s because good state schools are such a complete lottery still. If you’re fortunate or wealthy enough to live in the leafy glades of Surrey (for example) you will find good state schools. Look at some of the worst areas – including Portsmouth and Gosport and you will find that as a parent it is nigh on impossible to get a child into a good school. There’s an argument that says that a motivated and intelligent child will perform well no matter where, but I just can’t be persuaded yet – I hope things will improve. I’m very pleased to say that my youngest, having left a particularly crappy school with few qualifications is now back in higher education of her own volition and studying for the A levels she was not even offered at school.
    Britain deserves an education system of which it can be as proud as it is of the NHS, and sadly in spite of Blair’s rhetoric, even this government, which has done so much in so many spheres has not succeded with state education.

  • crm114

    In fact,….? To my knowledge there is no evidence on the scale of the drugs problem between different education sectors. If so, please tell. If not, stop pontificating.
    A sample size of one we can all come up with, and proves nothing. In my last school (independent), kids achieved an average of one and a half grades higher than Government approved predictions. I have managed to get girls into STEM subjects at University at 25 times the national (state sector) average. I visit state schools frequently. I could not have achieved these things in the state sector, for the same reasons state school teachers cannot (I know I’m not the worlds’s greatest teacher, and little if at all better than they are). No discipline, too much pointless paperwork, no support from senior staff for showing initiative, crap syllabi (viva IGCSE !).
    All of which the current Government are responsible for.

  • Guy Dresser

    Very interesting blog on state v private schools. Can’t comment on quality of drugs in private sector…
    I have a child in state school, another in private sector – for reasons that you allude to rather dismissively, except that there are diagnosed special needs that were not adequately catered for when child was in state sector. I’m a huge fan of the state sector, very pleased with what’s on offer there but regrettably there are (yes, really) times when particular children will do better in private sector than the state. And the facilities are better (but that’s what you’re paying for, really, that and smaller class sizes). Whether universities treat my children equally will be another saga in itself, I expect. There is already plenty of evidence of discrimination against private school pupils.

  • olli issakainen

    I went to a state school in my relatively small eastern Finland hometown. The then Ambassador of the United States paid a visit to my school and said that there were only five schools in the whole USA which had better facilities than our school.

  • Donna

    I have four children. The oldest is at the local state secondary school. At first I was very impressed, but in year 8 she was in several classes where behaviour severely limited the scope of the teaching input, and in others where the teachers were just poor. This year is better, with the odd hiccup. However, she is an extremely robust academically able girl, her, sister while being equally bright is more shy and less confident. Her strengths lie in the arts subjects, which are the ones which appear to be less robustly taught and generally in mixed ability (and mixed behaviour) classes. She has been at the school for half a term and asked at the weekend if we could look again at the small independant school we considered for her previously, as she feels she isn’t able to get the most out of the subjects she enjoys best. She also witnessed two of her classmates being hit and punched in the coridoors in two diferent incidents last week. Okay, she is a good girl and will stay out of trouble. But is that the sort of environment I want her to be in? No. So, depending on how her trial day goes today, she may move schools. I have no elisitist reasons for considering this route. I just want her to be able to flourish. How would we all feel, as adults, if we went into work each day and sat alongside workmates who could keep q

  • Lesley Taylor

    I don’t know about pushers targeting private school kids, but at the private school my friend’s children used to attend, half the parents were drug dealers or related to them. One such yummy mummy (whose partner was a well known local dealer) took exception to my friend’s 5 year old son and accused him of bullying her 7 year old daughter. Later that week, 2 heavies threatened the family. The school were not interested neither were the local police and my friend has since taken her children away from the school, left the area and now sends them to a local state primary which she thinks miles better anyway.

  • Em

    Across the pond, there is no such debate. No stigma attached to going private. I applaud you all for at least having a discussion about it.

    In the UK, I’ve been to my share of parties peopled with Harrow/Oxford and Eton/Cambridge kids (where do the girls go?) and I was stunned by how similar those kids were. It was a bit like the Stepford Wives but engineered for the leaders of the next generation.

    I wouldn’t send my kids to private schools for the same reasons I wouldn’t vote BNP. I want my children to be in a culturally and economically diverse environment.

    I surely can’t be the only one holding such beliefs but I wonder about one aspect though: how many middle and upper class pro-state schools parents themselves nurture friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds?

    I hope parents do more than simply impose their philosophy on their children.

  • Gill

    I love this blog and think it could make a really interesting piece of social research. I wonder if there’s another angle worth exploring here – the drug habits of both state and public school kids seem to result in a loose network of buyers, sellers and users. The quality of the drugs is probably no different, but are the kids creating a social network that is actually a little uplifting? Outside the ‘system’, yet enjoyed hugely by the participants – a bit like church-going, which seems to unite those who indulge in it in a rather positive way, yet remains mysterious to most of society. Worth a systematic look, maybe?

  • Peter Palladas

    ‘Kind of makes sense, in a market economy sort of way’?

    Utter Hogwarts and you know it.

    Might in truth better argue that that could only prove drug dealers must lack the benefit of a private education. For otherwise they would know, from personal experience, that the necessary commitment of disposable income required to invest in the private education of one’s child or children, renders a can of Coke, not a gramme of cocaine, on a Friday night a luxury for parents and pupils alike.

    In my time we had three boys thrown out for drugs, whilst at the state school down the road there were nine. Proves, beyond any doubt of course, that state education is three times more drug-crazed than private. Doesn’t it?

  • toby123

    If state education is better than private education then why do the left always complain about parents putting their kids through the private system?

  • paul

    This is analysis by anecdote. Someone has three kids who have done well in state school so everything is ok? Really? On any fact-based analysis private schools outperform state schools by a substantial margin. Sorry but they do. My kids are in state school because I believe in state schools but I also know that academically they will under-perform their primary school peers who have gone on to private schools. This is something where I wonder every day if I am doing the right thing. Our state schools especially in London are not good and parents who stick with it are not making a sacrifice themselves for their own beliefs but asking their children to do so. That is not an easy issue and facile puff pieces like this do not help anyone.

  • Holly Pearson

    I read all your blogs, Alastair, and really enjoy the mix of subjects and also the changes in tone, probably according to your mood if I guess right. As a regular I can see that your piece today has strong underlay of humour with a desire to poke the target – namely those who dress up their own prejudices about privilege in what you rightly call the skewed debate about state schools. It is fascinating to see the responses … people take what you saw both at face value, and seriously, so they are likely to over-react. I’d love to know what it is like to be able to provoke such strong reactions in people. But on the plus side as far as you are concerned, it is a product of a strong reputation. I saw you on This Week and it was obvious that of his three guests – you, Mr Portillo and Diane Abbott, his regulars – you were the one he wanted to talk to and was listening to with respect. Hope this makes sense

  • richard

    Think you have a stalker Alastair….

  • emma

    Private school’s are businesses, praying on people’s snobbery and sometimes racist attitudes. You actually need less qualifications to teach in a the private sector than the more rigidly regulated state sector.
    One mother i spoke to recently didnt want her child to go to the local state primary ( which had an outstanding ofsted report) because of the colour of the children who went there, even though they were leaving with a high standard of reading and maths.That says it all i think.

  • Nick

    A question to Campbell and Millar and those of a similar, guilt ridden mindset.

    What precisely is wrong with “middle class angst” ?

    And isn’t it a whole lot more preferable than Labour Shameless Underclass indifference ?

  • Hazico

    Hi Alistair,

    Yes- it was a very interesting debate yesterday, and I’m sorry I’m not able to spend more time following through.

    Just to say briefly from our perspective on the Notts/Derbys border; we fully support state schools and are Labour voters- always have been.

    But there is still wide variation between secondary schools, judging by our recent research via Ofsted reports, visits to schools, and first hand reports from parents and young people here.

    Within a few miles radius, one school has a Grade 1 rating from Ofsted, another Grade 4, and 2 others Grade 3.
    We have lived in our local town for nearly 20 years, but have been told by a senior teacher not to bother applying for the Grade 1 listed school, as they are always massively oversubscribed.(Even though this would have been our school of first choice- and less than 1 mile away!!!)Also- slightly out of th catchment border- which is apparently what makes all the difference.

    So we have had to compromise on our choice for our son’s intake next September, like many other parents.
    What we have chosen is considered to be a “good” school, but with some weaknesses.
    The one most local to us is on the edge of a severely deprived estate, so much so that the school has its own police room, and police parking space! And yet our neighborhood is a very mixed area socially.The children coming out at lunchtimes in a caterpillar, I’m sorry to say, resemble a mini crime wave.Litter everywhere, language unbelievable to passers by, cycling all over the road, spitting, swearing, and fights breasking out are a common sight.It is not induce us to send our son there- even though we know it is a vastly improving school.
    Parents believe discipline is paramount in the school’s ethos and culture.

    The one we are applying to we feel positive about.But I have heard reports from parents that there have been incidents in the past of mini buses been set alight, and
    fairly common anti social behaviour.

    One very young girl wanted to take up metalwork as an option, and joined a class of 9 other boys- all with ASBO’s!!!
    Also, many of these schools are extremely large- 6 times the size of the primary schools.2 of these locally have very very poor buildings and facilities- and well overdue for refurbishment.

    So I actually do understand the anxieties of parents very well- middle class or not.
    Sometimes it can be unwarranted “angst”- but often it is realistic, based on the choices available locally.

    I’ll be totally honest and say we have seriously considered private schooling.The reason is primarily the vastly smaller class sizes and individual attention; the excellent exam results, and the pastoral care.
    Each private school varies too.Some are like exam factories, and totally acedemically driven- pandering to rich parents;but others are more low key and non selective academically.

    Ideally I think state run comps need to have consistent standards.Also I’d like to see far more involvement with parents in having a say in how the school is running- there needs to be partnership.

    I certainly do not blame the teachers; I think on the whole they are doing an incredibly difficult job in a target driven culture! They and the parents are the experts who should be driving the standards set in schools, and the way things are done.

    However, as Fiona commented on yesterday’s blog – the Tory alternative proposals for next year are certainly not the way forward; we don’t want schools run like supermarkets….

    I still think Scotland has an excellent system- and we should look closely to models there of how they manage to acheive such excellent schools and standards of a well rounded education.(and Scandanavia.)

  • Judith Haire

    Taking a break from mopping up after the flash floods at the weekend I read today’s blog. As far as humour goes please don’t knock it until you’ve tried it as it’s kept me sane on many an occasion. I didn’t see the Fiona vs Toby Young discussion on Sky News so am disadvantaged From my own experience I was sent to a secondary school I didn’t want to go to, a year before I was supposed to go there and was told that everybody else would give their right arm to go to this school a fact I somehow doubted. Children respond to encouragement, end of story. The place is too damp today for me to give a stuff about missed apostrophes and I think society would be a better place if everyone cut everyone else a bit of slack and lived in the here and now.

  • Paul

    This is a jaw-dropping collection of comments below. Please read on but the highlights include someone who considers parents who send their children to private schools to be “racist”, another who claims that half of the parents in her private school are drug dealers and (already amusingly identified by Richard) a stalker. Read on…

  • Hazico

    I think we’re in danger of getting into either/or thinking, and stereotypes here.(Which do exist in the leafy suburbs I’m sure…)

    However, the ideal would be excellent secondary education for all schools, not just for those lucky enough to live in the right catchment areas.(There is an excellent system in Scotland- sorry to keep repeating that!)

    There should be real choice for parents when applying for schools: each child is different, and there will be different preferences.

    Also I’ve noticed there seems to many more very high quality primary schools than there are secondaries.

    On a personal level, our son is the youngest in his class, and at an Ofsted rated “outstanding” primary school.
    There is a huge emphasis on academia and the SATS tests- especially in Year 6.This emphasis seems to outweigh any consideration about social development or a wider education for young children.Consequently – a high level of competetiveness and indeed anxiety I feel.
    In other ways a very good school.

    But the reality is the state secondaries we are applying to are vastly different, and 6 times the size.

    I worry about our son being left behind in a huge school; also having to pretty tough with such a social mix.

    We may consider 1:1 private tuition, just to boost his confidence and keeping up with so much testing.

    This is not what I’d called being angst ridden- more realistic about what’s on offer!

    But I do acknowledge- there are aome areas which are seen a stereotypically “middle class.” Mind you, if that drives up standards for all- that’s a good thing!

    But I don’t agree with mixing kids with vastly different abilities.I think there should be streaming.We’ll see how it goes next year!

    Sorry to have rambled on a bit- but just trying to paint a realistic picture of our experiences….

  • Anne Reyersbach

    I recently met a woman with a bright 10 year old. She lives in a North London borough that doesn’t currently have the best reputation. She was told by her daughter’s teacher to ‘look for a private school as none of the state schools are good enough’. I was horrified.
    It seems to me that parents of privately educated children get a raw deal for their money anyway-much shorter terms and ‘coasting’ schools with dubious charitable status. And few manners. And absolutely no social conscience or awareness-bankers in the making.
    I told the man who tried to lure me to the Independent Schools Show in Battersea Park a few weeks ago that he should be abolished. he looked aghast!! he got the wrong person!

  • Hazico

    The irony is, I wonder how many politicians in the House of Commons, and people in senior positions in public life were actually educated privately? Does it give people an academic and social advantage for future careers and social position?

    I also know parents whose children have had a very positive experience in private schools; they do vary greatly also.

    Perhaps less parents would consider this as an option if all state secondaries were uniformly excellent?
    It shouldn’t just depend on catchement areas, or the luck of the drawer.

    And I really am a Labourite through and through!!!

  • Marion

    I’d like to add my opinion to the range below (just for Paul’s entertainment!)
    I went to a grammar school, and have taught in a Catholic School, rural state comprehensive and am currently teaching in a private international school.

    My observation is that the blog comments are all about children. Actually, from a teacher’s perspective – education is all about the parents. Kids who have parents who support them AND the school, and who are given clear boundaries at home are most likely to go on to do well and achieve in life; those who are not are far more likely to be a pain in the ass in the classroom and take longer to recognise their potential.

    I have fortunately never come across drug-taking in schools in the UK (though most teacher’s will say that coca cola is just as bad!) Not a problem here in Sudan as it is an offence punishable by death. The only market economy that has developed from this private school is that the people of Khartoum now buy teddybears, whereas before the Moh’d teddy incident (yes – I work at that school!) there wasn’t a bear market in the country.

    Incidently, I intend to return to UK school teaching in September 2010 and will NEVER work in the private sector again! Give me a inner city state comp any day… why? Because 90% of them are so much better managed! The measures put in place by the government aren’t about pointless paperwork – it’s about improving the quality of teaching and engaging children in their learning.

  • Dave Roberts

    I agree wholeheartedly with the closing paragraph, and feel that I am likely to follow the same path once my children reach that stage of their eduction. However, I can’t help feeling that these views might be more widely held, if it wasn’t for the reluctance of New Labour ministers to follow the same mantra.

  • Caroline H

    Research by the Sutton Trust is at odds with the experience of Nicki Hodges, you and your wife. In terms of outcome. There are a disproportionate number of independent pupils in influential jobs.

    But a big fat laugh at “My nine-year-old has a reading age of 11 and four months.” This comment perfectly sums up what is wrong with state education.

    BTW the going rate for a line of smack at my sons’ Herts Independent is £2.50. What’s your son/daughter paying? In a market economy sense kind of way, wouldn’t one expect state school smack to be a bit cheaper?