As parents, the pressure to send your child to the “right” school can be quite intense. Education is such a crucial part of everyone’s life. The type of education your child receives will play a big role in his or her development and can deeply influence the path he or she chooses to take. We figured it would be useful for you to have an idea of the different types of UK schools and lay out some of the pros and cons of private and state schools and suggest ideas on what to do if you can’t afford a private school but feel like your child isn’t being stimulated enough in his or her current education.
All children in England between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school. The majority of these state schools have to follow a national curriculum. According the GOV.UK, the most common state schools are:
Community schools, controlled by the local council and not influenced by business or religious groups
Foundation schools and voluntary schools, which have more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools
Academies, run by a governing body, independent from the local council (they can follow a different curriculum).
Academies were established in 2000 by Tony Blair as a way of fixing the failed state school problem by replacing them. Currently, our education minister hopes to make them the ‘norm’. The GOV.UK page sums Academies up as publicly funded independent schools. It seems like terms of contradiction, right? According to their webpage, “they (Academies) don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. They still have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools”.
As independent, state-funded schools, Academies receive their funding directly from the central government, rather than through a local authority. All types of state schools are funded through national and local taxation. Local authorities are responsible for education within their jurisdiction but are not responsible for Academies.
Academies were established by the 1997–2010 Labour Government to replace poorly performing community schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation. Their start-up costs are typically funded by private means, such as entrepreneurs or NGOs, with running costs met by Central Government. They are administratively free from direct local authority control. In other words, they are free, state-funded schools which are run by charitable trusts. They cannot be run for profit. As The Guardian wrote a few years ago, “They are not under local authority control and so arguably are subject to less bureaucracy and have more freedom over their budgets. They can change the length of the school term and day”. Certain academies may have sponsors including businesses, universities, faith groups, voluntary groups or even other schools. This had led to a bit of controversy which we will discuss in the last section.
Overall, Academies have their own admissions process, and therefore have more freedom than other state schools to run their school by having more room to innovate and develop their own system and filter the student body. The head teacher or principal deals with the daily running of an Academy, however, Academy trusts (individual charitable bodies) oversee many aspects of the school such as strategic advising, plans or support.
Although Academies were initially about improving failing schools, it now “has changed radically to embrace all types of schools – successful or otherwise. All schools – primary as well as secondary – have been invited to convert to Academy status, with priority being given to the best performers”, according to the BBC. A few years ago, there were plans to have all schools convert to Academies by 2020 or committed to by 2022. However, as these plans gave rise to strong criticism, from teaching unions as well as Conservative MPs and councillors. They are now abandoned.
The controversy surrounding these schools is the government believes it allows the schools more freedom to be inventive about the length of school day and term times as well as teachers’ pay and opting out of national curriculum. However, a number of MPs’ committees have “criticised the academies programme for a lack of oversight, in terms of finances and public accountability”. As the BBC explains, teaching unions believe that turning schools into Academies is a big step towards privatising the school system and are concerned. However, as the GOV.UK page states: “Academies are free, state-funded schools which are run by charitable trusts. They cannot be run for profit. Profit-making schools were explicitly ruled out in our manifesto and will continue to be: charity law would expressly prevent this. The school system is not being privatised – instead heads and teachers are being given greater freedom to run their schools. There are already strict rules in place which prevent individuals and companies profiting from their relationship with an academy, as with local-authority schools, academies cannot sell or change the use of publicly funded school land without government approval. This will not change”.
For more information about the number of Academies, who oversees these schools and how they operate in the rest of the UK, read the BBC article, mentioned above. In addition, the GOV.UK page 10 facts you need to know about academies is very useful.
Grammar schools, run by the council, a foundation body or a trust – they select all or most of their pupils based on academic ability and there is often an exam to get in. As we discussed in one of our earlier blogs, Grammar Schools and Entrance Exam Debate, Teresa May pushed to allow new selective schools to open and existing schools to turn into grammar schools. The political debate surrounding this arose strong opinions from all sides, forcing May to abandon her plan to expand grammar schools.
The other main type of school is private schools (also known as ‘independent schools’). These schools charge a fee to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils don’t have to follow the national curriculum. All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly.
Are private schools worth your money?
A few years ago, The Huffington Post ran two articles addressing both sides of the debate. The first article they published was Why Private Schooling Isn’t Worth The Money, which gave rise to considerable controversy. It was an article written by a mother who didn’t see the advantage of a private school education and discussed the ways in which her children were developing and learning quite well at a state school. Her stance was a bit negative towards private schools, but she had some interesting arguments. In short, the arguments were that paying the exorbitant school fees for a private school may not be worth it, that a child’s development also happens at home not exclusively at school, and that other life skills are taught in state school (such as learning how to get along with people from different background). She also highlighted that a private school may not be worth it for parents who don’t make enough money to afford it. When parents work extra to afford private schools it can come at a great cost, such as sacrificing their health and quality time with their family. Her main argument was to explain why sending your child to a state school can also set them up for a happy and fulfilling life.
The Second article, Why Private Schools Are Better Than State Schools laid out the debate the last article had given rise to, and discussed, from the point of view of a parent who also happened to be a teacher in both independent and state schools, why she believes private schools are the better choice. She started off her argument by highlighting what private schools are known for, such as the nice buildings, the committed teachers, better exam results, range of extra-curricular activities, the better educated family backgrounds etc. Although she had a point, and it is reasonable to assume most private schools do have the means to afford better facilities, activities, and teachers, that’s certainly not the case for all schools. Some state schools have outstanding teachers and some private schools have poor teachers. Just like for everything in life, money can’t always guarantee quality. In fact, some teachers have taught in both systems, which demonstrates that the quality of teaching is up to the teacher more than the school. Private schools, because they have more money, are able to be more selective when hiring. That seems to be the main reason why private school teachers may, on average, be better. If you want to read a teacher’s personal experience in both systems, check out Teaching in private and state schools: the differences, priorities and styles in this Guardian article.
As we can see, although private schools may surpass state schools in some aspects, we must keep in mind that private schools can’t necessarily guarantee a better overall experience. For some families, it may make sense to send their children to a private school. Especially if they can afford it without burdening the family income. But this doesn’t mean their children will necessarily do better in life. States schools can also provide an excellent education, and other factors, such as family dynamics and personal character, will also play a major role in a child’s development. In other words, there are many things to consider before deciding that paying extra money to send your child to a private school is definitely worth it.
In addition to this, other arguments surrounding state and private schools have surfaced recently. For instance, the Telegraph published the article Are state schools actually providing a better education than private schools? discussing how although state schools seem to be rising in ranks and gaining more recognition, a set of other challenges are surfacing. For instance, the frenzied competition to get into one of these successful state schools (not all state schools are doing well). Or how the narrow Ofsted agenda has been focusing too much on grades and exam passing in state schools. And as a result, has cut down on extracurricular activities, which are key in helping children build their confidence, learn how to get along with people and succeed in their future.
Another article by the Guardian, State or private? Painful school choice that still fuels inequality in Britain, discusses the personal opinion and experience of Will Hutton, a writer for the Observer and principal of Hertford college, Oxford. His main argument focuses on how the British education system is the most socially engineered to advantage privilege in the world. He also highlights how state schools are good and improving, but how despite this, many parents will still prefer to send their children to private schools. He believes that in the long run it would be better to allow children to have a common education, learning together and from each other. He saw many students, including his daughter, go on to do quite well thanks to their state education. He does not see the correlation between private schools and better life outcome and concludes by advocating for a universal system, where class and division don’t play such a big part in our county’s education.
As we can see, neither school system is perfect. Both sides have different advantages and disadvantages. Yes, the private schools have more money, but that doesn’t guarantee a better education or future. Both schools may have different areas where they excel, but in the end, what makes a student successful is their family, their character and their personal experience at school, regardless of whether it’s private or state.
So what should you do now?
The above has hopefully demonstrated a breakdown of the pros and cons of private school vs. state schools. Several important factors seem to be at play in making a decision. An important one of course is money! Both private and state schools can do an excellent job of educating your child. Not all state schools are the same, and the quality of teaching is often down to the teacher not the school. Which means that quality teaching exists in both private and state schools. However, as we mentioned earlier, private schools do have more money and therefore can afford better facilities and extracurricular activities. They also pay teachers better, which means they likely can be more selective when deciding who to hire. However, private doesn’t necessarily mean always better. If you don’t have the means to afford private, there’s no point on worry or trying to work extra hours in order to afford it. Instead, think of alternative ways you can enhance your child’s education, if for some reason you don’t feel like your state school in particular is meeting your expectations.
There are three main ways to help your son or daughter develop and solidify their education foundations if they are in state schools (better or worst ones). The first is spend a few hours every day checking and supporting their homework effort. For example, buy extra homework books (For younger children up age 13, BOND books are a great option for boosting Maths, English, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning). Also, encourage your child to read deeper thinking books and then have a discussion about it once they are done with their chosen book. Ask them to teach you some of the things they learned from the book! This may be difficult for many working parents, which is where our second two suggestions come in.
We also recommend signing them up for excellent summer schools. These can be fun and educational and help them develop their interests in fields they may not have been exposed to at school such as learn more in-depth about STEM subjects, develop their creative writing skills or simply improve subjects they may have struggled with over the year. Basically, it will give your child the opportunity to keep learning and improve areas he or she needs help with, but in a new and fun environment, where marks and academic pressure are not at the centre. Check out some Summer Schools and Summer Courses here or university specific programmes such as the Under 18 Summer school at Imperial College or King’s College Pre-University programme.
Another great option to ensure that your child develops excellent foundations and academic skills despite not being in the best of state or private schools is to organise a weekly tutoring programme in their key subjects. Getting tailored tutoring can be very helpful for parents to ensure their child gets one on one attention, skills boosting, exam preparation and confidence, especially considering the costs are much more reasonable than sending your child to a private school. This is likely why private tuition is in such high demand!
As The Telegraph states: “Private tuition too may be behind some of the improvement in state school education. One in four children generally, and almost half in London, now have private tuition”. Many of the students we tutor and families we serve are using our tutoring programmes for this reason.