Are private schools worth paying for?

The benefits of independence

With smaller classes, longer school days, intensive tuition, and an abundance of extra-curricular opportunities, private education has long been viewed, in Britain, as a surefire way of ensuring a child’s success.

The state sector, famously, has fewer such provisions: classes are larger, facilities older and state schools generally produce lower grade averages. Where state schools with more equitable success rates and facilities exist, they are likely subject to competitive admissions criteria and highly-expensive catchment areas, for example, Fox Primary in Kensington and Greycoat Hospital School in Westminster.  In addition, private schools usually exceed their state counterparts in sporting and artistic facilities.  These are clearly attractive attributes for those who can afford the private route.

Where private schools really excel is in their ability to push education beyond the national curriculum.  The development of critical thinking and cultural knowledge is arguably much stronger in private schools. Their independence allows them to discuss subjects and topics for their own merit, rather than simply being at the decree of decisions made far away in Westminster. Private schools tend to have better access to cultural resources and more stringently encourage their pupils to develop these passions.

The smaller class sizes, and more intensive tuition, allows tutors to give the individual a more focused and tailored education. Mentoring is a seamless part of the private-sector experience. Tutors have fewer pupils in their care and can, therefore, give more energy to their academic performance as well as their extra-curricular & cultural education. The longer school days give the time and space for pupils and staff to build on this relationship and engage in a broader array of educational opportunities.

However, the number one reason fee-paying parents choose the sector is for its perceived academic excellence.  Private schools are known to have the resources and experience to mentor their pupil body towards top universities.

University admission – is the state sector catching up?

There has been a challenge in recent years to the traditionalist view that private education leads to top university admission. Over the past 10 years, pressure has been building on leading universities to widen their intake and increase their state-educated student body. All UK universities (Oxbridge and Russell Group included) have been issued with a benchmark by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the percentage of places that should be given to state-educated students. It is now commonplace for many UK universities to offer contextualised offers that take student background into consideration as well as academic attainment. In 2021, 31% of Oxbridge undergrads were privately educated. However, a decade previously, that number was as high as 42%. Within this framework and direction of travel, it is understandable to question whether or not private education is still worth the money.

However, the figures cited don’t tell the whole story. Firstly, whilst there has been a  steady drop in the proportion of privately-educated Oxbridge undergraduates, it remains starkly disproportionate to national figures. 31% of Oxbridge undergrads still compares well against the backdrop of only 16% of school leavers being privately educated. It would appear that despite the pressure universities have been under to increase their inclusivity, private education continues to present clear advantages when applying to the UK’s top universities. Secondly, whilst Oxbridge has decreased its privately educated intake, those figures have not stopped similar proportions of privately educated individuals attending top universities. The last 10 years have seen privately educated British nationals being accepted into Ivy League universities in the US or other top international establishments at higher rates than in previous decades. It is, therefore, clear that whilst certain British universities are increasing their own inclusivity, privately educated individuals are not being disadvantaged by this.

Discipline vs. diversity

At private schools, parents have financially invested in their children’s education. This commonly leads to a culture of higher expectations. Discipline surrounding behavioural issues is generally considered to be much more stringent in private schools. The state sector has a much broader intake of pupils, as well as a greater socio-economic responsibility to offer an inclusive education for local communities. This often results in state schools having a greater number of disruptive pupils but fewer mechanisms to challenge that behaviour. Some pupils, therefore, find private schools easier to cope with as there are fewer distractions.

However, whilst disruption may be more common, the state-sector handling that broader intake can also provide benefits to its pupils. State schools are much more representative of the real world. This leads some people to argue that they better equip their pupils for adult life. State schools tend to give pupils better opportunities to socialise and make friends with people from different backgrounds to themselves. There is often a greater sense of local community at state schools, with geography rather than financial means being the primary factor in their intake. Of course, not all state schools are diverse in their intake, and in the same way, many private schools have brought in protocols to increase their diversity. However, there is a consensus that private schools generally provide more stringent disciplinary benefits, whilst state schools provide greater diversity.

Every child is unique

Being fortunate enough to have the choice between private and state education is a lovely position to be in. Private school is in many ways worth its cost. The shared ambition that comes with personally investing in your child’s education, coupled with smaller classes and generally better-funded facilities create an array of benefits.

However, there are pros and cons to both forms of education. The state sector can provide an equally fantastic education for your child. The best form of education will be unique for each family on dependent on a whole range of personal factors. If children are dedicated to their studies and have the support of their families and teachers (with exceptional teachers working across both sectors), then they can excel in either setting. It is also worth considering that some London families choose to mix state and private education, to reduce the cost of school fees. For more information on this, see our blog on mixing state and private education in London.

For advice on and supported applications to both state and private schools, in London, and throughout the UK, please contact us