Whether You “Believe” In Fee Paying Schools Or Not, They Increase Your Kids’ Chances of Doing Well In Life
This post is dedicated to Diana C.
In Britain a private education increases your chances of making it to the very top in media, business, politics and other careers.
Where I come from, Malawi, now deemed by many development league tables to be the poorest country in the world whether you go state or private isn’t even a question: a Government education is now so atrociously lacking that even those with very little money opt for a private education. It wasn’t always like this, mind you, in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994 a state education left you with skills the job market could appreciate.
Having come to Britain at the university level I’ve watched how education works around here with a keen interest.
Sometimes I’ll be watching a random show on TV and I’ll look up the presenter and I am completely gobsmacked at the number of times I discover they went to an independent secondary school. If they didn’t they usually managed to make it to Oxbridge.
I last did this only a couple of months ago as I enjoyed BBC’s last series of The Great British Bake Off. I googled Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins out of casual interest to see who they actually were – I don’t watch much TV, you see. And there it was, independent high school plus a splash of Cambridge for both…that’s where they met and became friends. That connection has obviously also paid great economic dividends. Mary Berry before you ask was independently educated too.
I mean, nowadays it’s almost a casual sport for me to look up presenters and other personalities that I encounter on TV and in the news. My reaction over the years has gone from “he went to independent school?!” to “Of course, he did!”
Paul Hollywood, on the other hand, went to a state-run community secondary school. That said, his father owned a chain of bakeries that extended all the way down the east coast from Aberdeen to Lincolnshire. This is how he got his first “big break” into baking that eventually landed him in top hotels and eventually on TV. It’s not an ordinary background by any standards.
It’s not today’s topic but if there’s a good substitute for independent school it’s definitely parents that are well connected in the industry that you’d like to forge a career in.
Please don’t take my casual observations as evidence; according to a survey reported by The Guardian, only about 7% of Britain’s population go to independent schools but they take up most of the top jobs in public life: according to the survey 71% of top military officers were educated privately, as were 74% of top judges working in the high court; 51% of leading print journalists; 61% of the country’s top doctors (22% of doctors went to grammar schools) – that makes a total of 83% of top doctors from a selective education background; indeed, 32% of MPs having been privately educated as have almost 50% of cabinet ministers.
In business the proportion of independently educated CEOs has fallen from 70% in the late 1980s to 54% in the late 2000s and 34% today. That said, however, a good percentage of FTSE-100 CEOs are now non-British and those were not included in the survey.
Oxford and Cambridge graduates also dominate top jobs so if you can’t go independent, get your kids into Oxbridge.
Now, all this might seem unfair. It might look like there’s a lot of elitism and favouritism going on, however, this is probably not the case in many instances.
My own casual observation suggests there is a huge information- and ambition gap between a state education and a privately education.
When it comes to ambition a state school’s unwritten mandate appears to be to provide a good quality education to absolutely every body regardless of ability such that they ultimately leave the system employable. As far as Independent schools are concerned they’re bringing up the next generation of leaders in science, business and politics and they constantly reinforce this expectation through slogans and their teaching. The best independent schools are a microcosm of excellence. If excellence it expected of you, you’re much more like to be an outstanding achiever. Most independent schools ensure this through a highly selective admission process that allows entry only to the most able students.
I’ll give you a live example.
Recently I attended an open day at King Edward’s VI High School for Girls (KEHS). I don’t actually have a daughter so it got a little awkward when the student registering guests in asked me for my daughter’s name, when I said I don’t have one she paused and looked at me in surprise so I quickly made one up, “Write Darcy”, I said, if I had a daughter I’d probably call her Darcy.
By the end of my visit I wished I had a daughter just so I could vicariously enjoy life at KEHS through her. The slogan “It’s Cool To Be Clever” was pasted up somewhere in the hall. The students looked sharp and interested. A private chat with the Deputy Head revealed that they don’t have a pass mark for their entry exam. They have four streams in each year and they like to have 22 pupils per class although under exceptional circumstances they’ll take up to 24, that’s a total of 88 to 96 new pupils a year. Their strategy is to take the top 88-96 that pass their entrance exam.
“So, how many took the entrance exam last year?” I asked. About 600 girls; that means only 14-16% of those that applied got in. 500+ girls got an unfortunately letter. Having the best brains ensures they get top results and it also ensures students enjoys the process. If you’re not academically gifted this sort of environment would only produce unnecessary pressure possibly leading depression and other problems; it’s certainly not for everyone.
KEHS offers scholarships based on merit for top achievers regardless of income with more money set aside to help reduce fees for those that genuinely can’t afford the school.
KEHS is one of the very top schools in the country. In the Telegraph’s 2016 GCSE league tables, out of 330 independent schools listed (including boys, girls and co-educational schools) KEHS’ GCSE results ranked 18th: 91.95% of all grades were at A or above, 73.82% of all grades were A*. That’s mind-blowingly good.
The boys’ school, King Edward’s School, which sits on the same grounds ranked 33rd in the same table: 87.15% of all grades were at A or above, 60.72% of all grades were A*. Again, amazing.
For A-levels, out of 291 schools in the league tables KEHS ranked 23rd with 74.06% of all grades at A or above. KES ranked 7th with 85.59% of all grades at A or above.
Keeping in mind many schools opt out of these league tables, these results put both schools very firmly in the top 5-10% nationwide.
In addition to great academic facilities they offer lots of extracurricular activities as standard or for very little extra: a swimming pool, gym, sports facilities, music, drama and all sorts of clubs and societies.
What parent doesn’t want their kids to go to a school of this calibre?
In addition to the impressive facilities at KEHS I was won over by the humility of the students; I felt they were well-rounded, balanced kids. I once sat outside Eton after taking part in the London to Windsor bike ride and watched students coming in and out of the gate; I listened to the nature of their conversations and within 10 minutes said to my then boyfriend (now husband) “I wouldn’t want any son of mine to be like that.” I felt the kids’ confidence crossed too far into the realm of cocky. They just didn't seem normal to me or very balanced. Eton is certainly completely outside our budget but even with a full scholarship I wouldn’t want my son to go there. The pupils lacked the sort of humility I like to see in people that are privileged but fortunately there are many independent schools that manage to get the balance just right.
So, Who Are These 7% That Go To Fee-Paying Schools?
Contrary to common opinion many people that go to independent schools aren’t from an ultra-wealthy background. Most independent schools are full of people from quite ordinary backgrounds.
As an example, Sue Perkins’ father worked for a car dealer and her mother was a secretary; Mel Giedroyc’s father was a historian of Polish-Lithuanian descent. For the sake of completion I’ll note that her family has princely roots dating back to the 13th century. However, none of the literature I can find suggests they have old wealth anymore, that said coming from a background of achievement definitely drives one towards high performance too.
Most parents that send their kids to independent schools aren’t doing so because they have tonnes of cash sitting in the bank. They make huge sacrifices to afford the opportunity. Frequently one parent’s salary will be used for bills and the mortgage with the other’s wages mostly going to school fees. They pay for the schooling as they earn, sacrificing holidays and pension savings to make ends meet.
For many, taking kids through an independent education means driving an old Toyota Prius when your heart is crying out for the newer, sexier Audi A7, it’s living in a £250k, 3-bed terraced in the slightly less appealing part of town when you could otherwise have afforded the £400k detached.
It’s not all Porsches on the drive and Patek Phillipes at Christmas for most privately educated kids although some do, of course, have it all.
Are All Fee Paying Schools Equal?
No. Some obviously achieve better results that others.
The more selective the admission process, the better the school’s results tend to be.
Non-selective fee paying schools also exist. They’ll admit you provided you can afford to attend but besides impressive facilities and beautiful grounds they won’t match the academic rigour of a selective independent or even grammar school. That said, if your child isn’t academically gifted then a non-selective private school might be exactly what they need to thrive because smaller class sizes mean they’ll get much more individual attention allowing them a better chance to reach their maximum potential than in a state school with large class sizes.
Who Benefits The Most From Fee-Paying School?
Personally, I think groups that face a lot of work place discrimination such as black people have more to gain from private education than middle class white folk. Black people are highly underrepresented in top jobs. Discrimination exists at many levels in British society and having the right academic background definitely gives you that extra push you need.
This brings me to the information gap I talked about earlier between state and private education.
Private school, besides pushing students academically, appears to provide them with the knowledge they need to get into top careers. Their careers officers are actively engaged in guiding students through the opportunities that are available out there. They more actively engage industry leaders (especially old students) to come back and talk to students about the world of work. Some state schools try to do this too but it’s not as high on the priority list and they have a much smaller budget for careers activities.
Then there’s the social connections between students that brings a lot of insider knowledge with them too. For instance, in my second year in Cambridge I got a major shock when I walked into the first lecture to find 90% of the class reading the FT. “Why’s it all of sudden fashionable to be reading the FT?” I asked. “They’re applying for investment banking internships,” my friends told me.
I had absolutely no knowledge of this industry. I learnt absolutely everything from my social network. What was this investment banking? What was this Goldman Sachs everyone wanted to get into? Which banks paid the best? I learnt the different careers in the industry and I, that very week, subscribed to receive the FT on a daily basis.
My friends, many of whom had been to independent English schools, took all this knowledge that they had for granted. Some of their parents had worked in the banking industry so they knew loads about this very high status career that some of us knew absolutely nothing about.
Had I been doing Economics at, say, London Met for instance, would this knowledge have been so accessible to me through the friends I made? I don’t know but I doubt it.
Ultimately, one of my key arguments for wanting to send my kids to an independent school is the social network. I want them to make friends with people that know things about things that actually matter, children from high performance backgrounds. Some might call this elitist, I call it ambitious.
By the same token I’m not so ambitious that I’ll push my son towards goals that he’s clearly not capable of reaching. We’ll just try our best to get him into an environment that helps him flourish. As an 11-year old I remember my parents taking me to write several high school entrance exams as far and wide as Zimbabwe; not once did they tell me they hoped for or expected a certain result from me. There was no pushing, motivational talks, or private tuition before these tests, I just went; I plan to be as relaxed with my son despite the high hopes I have for him.
I’m frightened of my mixed race son helplessly falling into a stereotype of what a mixed/black boy should be: a hip-hop loving dancer, rapper or gangster with little interest in academia. I feel a state education won’t build his potential. Everything I’ve learnt about how it works around here suggests an independent education will help him become whatever he wants to be free from stupid stereotypes; stereotypes that remain pervasive today and are actively being reinforced in this uncertain post-Brexit world.
Is A State Education That Bad?
No, some areas are served by amazing state schools. Unfortunately, however, people scramble to live near outstanding state schools leading to a massive increase in house prices in the catchment area for the school so poor people are crowded out anyway.
The least deprived comprehensive in the country only has 4.2% of pupils with parents on income benefits compared with 68.6% in the most deprived comprehensive. CEER Publications, University of Buckingham. Buckingham.ac.uk (1997-01-02).
The best state schools come at a huge premium with some families paying up to £500,000 MORE to be near a top state schools according to the Independent.
It’s a particularly interesting time to be talk about schools. The outgoing Oftsed Chief Executive recently described the British state school system as still mediocre and only deserving of a 6.5 out of 10. “We're not there with the South Koreas and the Shanghais and some of the really good European nations and we've got a lot to do to catch up,” he said (Telegraph).
There’s no denying that you can of course do well wherever you go; it’s just that some places work harder to help you reach your potential than others. If your gifted child ends up in a comprehensive school that doesn’t separate students by ability be in no doubt that you’re quite actively pushing your child down towards mediocrity. I’ll give you an example from my own life.
My parents sent me to Kamuzu Academy (The Eton of Africa) a few weeks late. I’d been at another school for those first few weeks. Having arrived over the weekend I wasn’t sure where I needed to be so on the Monday I followed a girl I’d made friends with to her maths class. To this day 22 years later I recall how painful I found the experience. The teacher spent 15 minutes on an example that should have taken about 3 minutes and I could see some people were clearly not getting it. Even at 11 years old I was so frustrated by the slow pace of the class.
At the end of the lesson I blurted, “I think that must be the bottom set because it was so slow.” (Needless to say I wasn’t endearing myself to too many people with careless statements of this nature that came with an unfortunate frequency). Someone suggest I go to another class the next day but no one had been told that they’d actually been split into sets by ability so he didn’t know if it would be any better. On arrival the teacher told me that they were having a test that day, was I sure I wanted to join then? I said it was okay, I’d write the test. That was my second day of school, Tuesday.
The next day it transpired I’d scored the top mark alongside another girl and we were both asked to go into the next class, the top set. I knew I belonged there instantly: the faster pace suited me much better and I thoroughly enjoyed more challenging environment.
Students need to be set challenges based on their ability. Someone who wasn’t as good at maths would have been as frustrated in the top set as I felt in the bottom set. Performance in all schools – state and private – should set challenges based on ability, we’re not all equally able.
Of course not everyone can afford a private education. Those that can’t afford it try their best to get into the few grammar schools that still exist and many complement a state education with private tuition in key areas.
Private tuition helps people either get into grammar schools or achieve better GCSE and A-level results. I’ve even heard some parents save for an independent secondary education whilst their children are at a state primary school. This reduces the expenditure from 15 to 16 years of fees to 7 years.
Ever the Economist, I’ll conclude by saying that whether you like it or not (and I’m aware many will hate this fact) holding all other factors constant: race, religion, gender, wealth and even a stable, organic-food eating, exercise embracing home, a private education gives a child a big leg up in the perilous journey of career success. If you come from a group that faces a glass ceiling in the work place, for instance if you’re an ethnic minority, female or Muslim the benefits of going private can be gloriously significant indeed.
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