There are some things that will always be in competition. The Capulets and the Montagues; William Brown and Hubert Lane; the NHS and Bupa. They thrive on the tension, and there is always a story to be told.
Such is the case with schooling in this country. The education system, and the battle between private and state education, receives vast amounts of media attention. We often hear about why the state system is ‘failing’ — or conversely, more recently, triumphing.
Then there’s the perennial university conundrum: last year the Department for Education predicted that privately educated applicants would be five times more likely to gain admission to Oxbridge than students from state schools.
Add to that our social attitudes. We in Britain obsess over schooling. The value that we place on education is like no other: to some, it makes perfect sense to remortgage their house so their child can go to a school that has an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Others will do anything to get their child into a fashionable school. The children, meanwhile, just muddle on through wherever they have been plonked, unaware of the dilemmas that nag away at their parents.
I went to a large comprehensive in rural Somerset. The differences between rural state schools and their urban or private counterparts are pretty obvious. City schools have the advantage of being closer to museums and the theatre. Private schools also offer exotic holidays (sorry, ‘geography trips abroad’), and interesting outings and activities. Fat chance, at my rural comp, that we were going to be taken to the Big Smoke to see the latest exhibitions — but then again, we didn’t really mind. What we didn’t know about, we didn’t miss. In fact, we did once go to London on a school trip — to see a Hindu temple. It was a dispiriting outing and if anything it put us off visiting the capital. Perhaps that was the aim.
Despite the lack of museums in our part of Somerset, there were tremendous benefits to the school’s countryside location. Our playing fields were vast; we dissected offal from the local abattoir in biology; everyone knew everyone’s families, and there was a secure sense of togetherness. The amenities were inferior to those at most private schools, I expect, but we pupils enjoyed what we did have. On the whole, school facilities, catering arrangements and libraries are far more of a concern for parents than for children.
There are of course other aspects of private education that the state system cannot begin to compete with. One benefit of a private education is that the class sizes tend to be smaller. Classes at comprehensive schools can consist of up to 36 pupils. Such large numbers make it difficult for the children to reap as much learning as they could if there were a higher teacher-student ratio.
The national average hovers at around 21 in the classroom for state secondary schools but, as in every school on the planet, the quality of the lessons mostly depends on the teachers. Some are hopeless at crowd control; others could lead an army. Larger classrooms and fewer facilities put rural state schools on the back foot. On the other hand, a good teacher can inspire students whether in an expensive institution or a free one.
The purpose of a good education is largely to morph children into competent, well-rounded and thoughtful adults. Research last year found that children who attend private school will, on average, earn £193,000 more in their early careers than those from state school, which is presumably reassuring for parents who have invested large sums. But where are the statistics on their ability to make good choices, on their capacity for happiness? Does a private education really mean that someone will lead the best possible life once they’ve sat their A-levels and they land in the real world?
Private education offers no guarantee that your child will become a master of the universe. State education does not mean that they will end up at the bottom of the heap. Meanwhile, the diversity of backgrounds and abilities that you find in the state system offer a far more accurate microcosm of society. And it seems to me that that is to be highly prized.