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State secrets, or the hidden advantages of a public-sector education

People can be pretty snooty about state schools but they are what we make of them

19 September 2015

9:00 AM

19 September 2015

9:00 AM

So much of the divide between state and private schools is a matter of mere perception — the perceptions of the teachers, the parents and the children. When, years ago, I announced that I would be sending my children to state schools, my colleagues (journalists on a national newspaper) turned on me as a pack of hounds, baying their disgust at what they called my willingness to ‘experiment’ on my own children. Move over Mengele, here comes Waugh.

There are of course differences between the two types of education — but how many of them really matter? For my (yes, state-educated) children, many of the differences they saw between their various friends were nothing to do with education at all. Private school girls sported ‘messy buns’ and state school girls went for the ‘Peru Two TopKnot’. Private school children went on better holidays, were often more interested in sport, didn’t automatically help their parents clear the table. State school children had tea, not supper, and it was often ready-made. But none of those reasons are the ones considered by parents thinking about schooling.

Those of my friends who toyed with sending their children to state schools (in most cases it was only toying) came up with the same reasons not to make that leap of faith: class sizes; facilities; and something called ‘-friendship groups’. The first two reasons may be valid, but the last? One of the stupidest women I know told me she could not send her children to state school as she did not want them to meet stupid people. And yet they sat across from her every morning at breakfast.

As with all generalisations, the point is entirely missed. There are good and bad schools — and teachers — in both sectors, clever and stupid people in every class of society. So what are the real considerations when you decide where to send your child?


The first detail is of course where you live. If you live in a large city, it might well be harder to find a good state school. But then, what do we mean by ‘good’?

In the state sector we are driven by Ofsted. Ofsted, with its eagle eye, has taken the place of God or a caring monarch. Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children and our sins lay on Ofsted. Really? What exactly do they look at? And what do we as parents look at when we read the report?

Exam results are obviously pretty key. Private schools tend to outperform state schools — but they are mostly selective, weeding out the weak. How many parents really take that in when they look at the results? You need to look at the Value Added figure — which means whether the children have progressed as they should have since crossing our thresholds.

The school at which I teach is an urban comprehensive. (I didn’t just experiment with my children, I went on to have a career change and experiment with myself.) My children’s school was rural and had lower results; their students mocked our urban ones, and said they were like private-school children. But it was just a matter of intake — we got the consultant doctors’ children, they got farmers’ children. Snobbery? No, just that more of our parents are pushy. Being in a town, we also have some very deprived children. I am convinced children from every background benefit hugely from being in a comprehensive, mixed society.

The concerned parent needs to realise that children make their own choices. If you want to work, you can; if you want to end up in an inner-city gang, or in a rural graveyard taking drugs, you can do that too. The advantage of being in a school full of people of totally different backgrounds is you can decide who you want to be — the choices are delicious and endless. The clever children of whatever background will naturally be drawn towards each other, as will the sporty, the musical and the potentially criminal. They will find each other out wherever they are.

What often doesn’t make the news is the good achieved by so many state schools. Yes, in our cap-doffing to Ofsted we have to make sure of our results, but there is so much more we offer. State schools offer vocational training from an early age. In the 1970s you were grammar or secondary, but many comprehensives now manage to be both. You can do a building course and take history GCSE — you keep your options open. If your child really isn’t academic, why on earth push them through painful exams for the sake of it?

Only 7 per cent of the population is privately educated. What are the other 93 per cent of us whining about? We are the majority, and it is up to us to change perceptions. What has to change is not how we are educated, but how we perceive our education system. The curriculum has, thank God, been made more rigorous. Our state school children are given a very fair deal.

Actually, what has to change is how you pusillanimous parents too frightened to face the hoi polloi of your own towns think. Stop worrying about who little Freddy knows and concentrate instead on what he knows and how he thinks. Then little Freddy will have an education of which you can be proud.


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