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To Pay or Not To Pay? That is the question….

By Rhiane Kirkby

“If the toilets are clean and you get on with the other parents, then it’s the right choice.”

Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make and with the average cost of an independent day school in London amounting to around £18,000 per year, can it really come down to something as simple as sanitation?

Michael Isaac, a former primary school head and Ofsted inspector believes so. “The cleanliness and maintenance of the toilets actually says a lot about pastoral care and school values. And if you get on with the other parents, it’s likely your child will interact well with their peers.”

Toilets aside, there are, of course, a myriad of things for London’s parents to consider when it comes to school selection and with many opting to take the independent route from the age of three, it can be a very costly decision.

Ryan’s daughter was accepted at both Glendower Preparatory School and Queen’s Gate in Kensington, which both charge around £6,000 per term, but after agonising over the decision he decided not to send her to either, opting instead for his local Catholic primary. “I initially thought I could secure a better ‘preparedness’ for the 11+ exam in an independent prep school, but after a great deal of consideration, I decided I wanted a bit more ‘all roundedness’ for my child.” For Ryan, “the first three years of primary school don’t really matter, especially as we have the time and inclination to help her at home.” It is however a different story when it comes to secondary education. “We’ll probably go down the independent route”, he admits, “with 95% A*/A grades at A Level, it’s hard to ignore.”

French girl

And it seems Ryan is not alone in his thinking. School Consultant Lisa Freedman, managing director of At The School Gates, says that in her experience, London parents don’t feel under pressure to go to private primary schools. “There are plenty of good state primaries and the parents who worry about these things are good at planning ahead – buying a house in the right catchment or going to church – doing whatever it takes to get them in.” The issue comes at secondary level as the widely held belief is that provision just isn’t as good. “Parents focus on league tables”, explains Lisa “and selective schools do deliver – that’s why parents will pay.”

Research for the Independent Schools Council adds weight to this argument. The ‘Academic Value Added Report’ by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University found that pupils at Independent schools in England benefit from the equivalent of two additional years of teaching by the age of sixteen. With smaller class sizes, fee-paying schools can boost performance in public exams by 0.64 of a GCSE grade – potentially turning As into A*s

“The smaller teacher-pupil ratio in the independent sector is a key deciding factor for many parents”, explains Dr. Lucy Brown-Wright, a Consultant Child Psychologist in Education. “They believe it affords more individual learning opportunities and are attracted by the emphasis placed on work habits and application.” “I agree,” says Lisa Freedman, “in fact I tell parents that if they are going to pay, they should pay for boys aged eleven to sixteen as that puts them into a peer group where they will work and that’s a critical factor.” Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders believes other factors have a part to play. “88 per cent of state schools are facing a reduction in pupil funding, which means that enrichment activities, such as drama, sport and music are being cut. Independent schools can still afford to provide these “luxuries” and that’s what parents are attracted to.”

Alice says all of those reasons were behind her decision to go private. “We opted for a fee paying school for our son as he’s a bright boy, but we felt that in a class of 30 he wouldn’t receive the attention he needs. We’re in an area with lots of grammar schools and statistics show private primary education better prepares children to pass the 11+ exams and get into these schools. Our school has huge grounds, a pool and a really wide range of extra-curricular activities, something the state sector just couldn’t provide. For us, there really wasn’t a choice to be made.”

Smart boy

“It’s not just about the grades”, says Kate, “we chose to avoid state schools because of the lottery that is the application process. I’ve had friends who’ve moved house, been to church every Sunday and even volunteered to run Sunday schools – they would have done anything to get into their preferred school. That level of uncertainty isn’t something I was prepared to tolerate.”

“I’ve thought about nothing else for months and even had sleepless nights over it,” admits Sofia. “We’re right on the edge of the catchment area and we’ll be lucky to get into the school we want. We can’t afford to move - or pay school fees. I’m concerned about my son’s future and he’s only three.”

But with London’s state schools listed as some of the highest achieving in the country and even getting top marks in Tatler’s School Guide are parents really right in thinking they have to pay for the best?

“No,” says former primary head, Michael Isaac. “Remember you’ve already paid for state education in your taxes. State schools are clearly accountable, they have governing bodies and rules they have to adhere to.”

“Some independent schools employ unqualified staff”, explains educational psychologist Joan Fletcher. “Others have cramped conditions and it’s not uncommon for parents to be asked to fund any extra support a child may need or in more extreme cases, to remove their child from the school because they are underperforming. These factors should be a consideration, but for many parents, they’re not.”

“We know that London’s state schools are some of the best in the country”, says Geoff Barton, “but sometimes reputation lags behind results and parents become locked into old habits - thinking paid education is best.”

Boy with Apple

“I’ve got nothing against private education, says Amanda, it’s just that for us it wasn’t an option. My son has just left a state secondary with straight A’s and I’m confident that, with my help, my daughter will also reach her full potential. Would I be smug if my friends’ children at private schools don’t do as well as mine? Honestly, yes. But I also worry about the impact funding cuts will have. Ultimately though, I think parental backbone and support are key.”

Ryan agrees parents have a big role to play and is the first to admit that the pressure to find the right school made choosing that much harder. “If I had to do it all again I’d probably go through the same complex thought process, but I advise parents not to overthink it. In mainland Europe most people just go to their local schools and colleges. Here there’s so much choice it can become a problem for parents and with so much pressure to find the ‘best one,’ it makes choosing that much more stressful.”

No matter how hard, school selection is something all parents have to do, so toilets, luxurious facilities and league tables aside what factors should influence that decision?

The key piece of advice from education experts is to visit lots of schools and find out for yourself what goes on. Take your children along to gauge their reaction and talk to students and parents about their experiences. Ask tough questions about attainment, emotional development and destination data - where pupils go after leaving the school and take a good look at the teachers – do they look professional and are they on permanent contracts? And as for Ofsted, one former inspector says the overall grading system - outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate – is “meaningless.” “Instead,” he advises, “read the report in full - not just a summary or the bits the Governors have selected. Only then will you get a feel for what the inspectors say are the school’s strengths and weaknesses and what they need to do to improve.”

Ultimately no parent can be sure they’ve chosen the right school for their child but one thing is certain – in this age of information overload - the decision making process is unlikely to get any easier any time soon.

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