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What you pay for

The gulf between state education and independent schools grows wider every year, says Fraser Nelson – just look at the results

10 March 2011

5:45 PM

10 March 2011

5:45 PM

The gulf between state education and independent schools grows wider every year, says Fraser Nelson – just look at the results

Why choose private education? For years — including five long ones spent at boarding school — I was convinced there was no good answer to this question. For my family, it was an obvious choice: my father had been dispatched to work in Cyprus, and his employer, the RAF, would pay for my boarding school fees if I wanted to stay in Scotland.

Even a 13-year-old could see the logic. But once there, it baffled me: why would parents who did have the choice spend so much money?

Now, as a parent, I know the answers all too well. The horrid truth is that an educational apartheid has arisen in England — the disparity in attainment between private schools and statefunded schools is the biggest of any country in the world save Brazil.

Since I graduated, in 1992, Britain’s state schools have been hurtling further and further down the world league tables. Ten years ago, England ranked fourth in the world for science, seventh for reading and eighth for maths. Last year’s figures show we’re now 16th for science, 25th for reading and 28th for maths — this despite a huge, unprecedented increase in government funding for state schools.

Meanwhile, Britain’s private schools have remained pretty much the best on the planet. The gap is impossible for any parent to ignore. One can, and should, get upset about this. It’s our tax money that’s being squandered, our children who are being shortchanged, our country that suffers. You can complain, vote for change, wish Michael Gove every success in his attempt to introduce more independent institutions into the public sector.

But for now, as Diane Abbott, Ruth Kelly and Polly Toynbee can attest, the desire to do what’s best by one’s children trumps any political consideration. That is why so many British parents beg, steal or borrow in order to pay for their children to go to private school. The benefits are too great.


It was not always thus. Only a generation ago, private schools were places you sent your children for various social reasons, or if you wanted them to board. But they did not have the edge over grammar schools. By 1969, Oxford took 62 per cent of its students from state schools. After decades of busy government interference, this figure has decreased to 54 per cent.

Excellence, once, was being achieved by selective state education. It can still be found, in the best state schools — but let no one tell you it’s free. Those who have bought a house in the catchment area of a desirable state school can tell you about the price.

Parents who today opt reluctantly for private education can spare a thought for Tony Crosland (Highgate School and Trinity College, Oxford) who pledged to ‘destroy’ every grammar school in England. His hopes have come close to being realised. In 1971 one in three state schools was a comprehensive. The figure is now nine-tenths. Michael Gove’s academies are making rapid strides — but it may be five years before his reforms bear fruit. Today’s 12-year-olds cannot wait.

The gulf in standards is painfully obvious. Today, 42 per cent of state school pupils achieve A in A-level maths; for independent schools it is 66 per cent. In English it is 22 per cent against 51 per cent; in biology, 25 per cent against 48 per cent. The lists go on. There are, of course, excellent state schools and bad private ones.

But the latter tend to close, fairly quickly. Poor state schools just carry on. Parents thinking of going private this year will do so not because they want their child to fall in with a superior peer group, or develop hockey skills. All too many do so from fear of the alternative.

The social networking advantages of private schools are still, I would argue, exaggerated. The alumni of England’s
top public schools may run our country. But that has more to do with the deficiencies of our political system than anything else. In our age of globalisation, the elites of tomorrow will be international — so today’s school-leavers will be working (and competing) with their American, French and Chinese counterparts.

Globalisation means the old school tie is weaker than ever.

Two years ago, I was asked back to my old school, Dollar Academy, to deliver a prizegiving speech. It was an honour (and an indication that they’re still struggling for suitable alumni) to address the assembled parents. It forced me to list what I spent perhaps too much of my life refusing to acknowledge: the ways in which my private education helped me. I remembered, for instance, that in the boarding house, we juniors had to entertain the seniors by hurling abuse at the TV presenters as they read the news. It is an odd way of starting a career in political commentary, but it
worked for me.

Most of all, Dollar was a place where being stupid was looked down on. The cool kids were the clever ones. That can make a fundamental difference in a school.

Pupils respond to peer pressure more than parent pressure. The culture of a school is perhaps its most powerful
feature. I met incredible teachers who inspired me, and still do. Dollar was where I fell in love with learning, even if I didn’t do enough of it while I was there.

Boris Johnson was once asked what his education policy is. ‘I don’t see why every school shouldn’t be as good as the one I went to – Eton,’ said the scholarship boy. He was laughed at, but he’s right. If money were the problem, England would not have fallen so dramatically down the international league tables over a decade when the money invested in state education doubled.

Britain’s independent sector shows we can still achieve world-leading education. Why shouldn’t such brilliance inspire the state sector?

For now, however, the reason so many parents — even if they are ardent socialists — want to send their children to private school is simple: our independent schools are the best in the world. The state-run alternatives are (for now) depressingly inferior. The question is not so much why go private. If you can afford it, you need to find a pretty good reason why not.

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator


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