Sunday, 3 March 2013

Confession: I went to private school...


Last week, whilst ill, I was watching This Morning, and an old issue was reignited. The debate was titled ‘Is it wrong to pay for your child’s education?’ Immediately, that title blurs what is, in fact, a logical argument: what are the differences/benefits of private vs state schools? Instead, it turns the act of sending your child to private school into something malicious, and a calculated way to ensure your child tricks society into letting it achieve greatness in life. There are, of course, huge gaps between certain private and certain state schools, in terms of employment figures, grades achieved, and class sizes. Let’s not forget, though, that there are also huge differences between the schools within each category. Some state schools sit happily at the top of league tables, and plenty of people whose parents pay for their education slip through the net, drop out at 16, and spend their lives working in dead end jobs, or not working at all. The state/private debate is certainly not a new one, and I want to argue for the fact that I was sent to a private school. This certainly does not mean an easy life and healthy salary has been handed to me on a golden platter. If this post seems one-sided, it is because my purpose is to address the thoughts I have about private schools, having been through that system, so I’m sure there will be points certain people disagree with, as well as agree with.

Just for a bit of background: my school was a friendly one, focussed on developing well-rounded individuals. From year 7 to year 11 the boys and girls were schooled separately, and for sixth form we were mixed. I’d suggest it’s a fairly standard independent day school, based near Manchester, and isn’t like one of those few schools people tend to name when discussing elitist education institutions (eg. Eton and Marlborough College).

With my friend Anna on the last day of year 11 (we didn't wear face paint daily...)

I sometimes feel as if anything I achieve well in can be ‘blamed’ on my private education. There is the feeling that some assume my GCSE and A Level results are good simply because I went to private school. I cannot deny that it gave me certain advantages. Class sizes tend to be smaller, and more investment tends to be made in individual pupils, partly because teachers have that quality time to spend on each student. But let’s not forget that my teachers didn’t sit my exams for me. Yes, I had access to good facilities, good books, good classrooms and good teachers, but the thought that this automatically means you will achieve highly is nonsense. The odds may be significantly improved compared to certain other institutions, but it’s not just an easy ride. I worked so hard for my exams at school, and like to think that the majority of my good results are because of the work I put in myself. And UCAs certainly wasn’t a simple process. In fact, the tables have begun to turn against private school pupils when we are in the running for university places. As universities are more and more conscious of offering places to pupils of all backgrounds (which is definitely a good thing), there comes a point where the odds begin to stack up against someone who has been privately educated. There are questions where you have to state your parents’ salaries (this should not be an issue until it comes to applying for student finance) and whether your parents attended university. Each adds a further black mark against my name. In my year group, a huge number of people missed out on university places, received only one or two offers out of five universities they applied to (and would definitely get the grades for), and many ended up taking years off to try and reapply.


The support from teachers can't be denied: I received cards on the last day of sixth form...

Finally, not all ‘private school pupils’ come from the same mould. We’re not all spoilt rich kids. It sounds like such a dated thing to say, but the assumptions are definitely still there. Plenty of parents sacrifice lots of other things because their priority is paying for education. Plenty of people have bursaries, scholarships, and sibling discounts. (I myself had a scholarship for achieving highly in my entrance exam.) Lots of parents and pupils make the private school decision because of the education offered, it is not just a sense of entitlement bred in the rich. I know that not every parent is in the position where paying for private school would be an option, but we can’t vilify those who have the means (whether it is through high salaries or scrimping on luxuries). We need to stop turning this into a class issue, or an issue of political party affiliation. Instead, we need to recognise that the reason some parents send their children to private school is because of the smaller class sizes and the opportunities those schools can offer. Instead of spending our magazine programme debates pointing out that there are issues with our education system, let’s consider why some view private education a desirable step. These schools are doing something right. So instead of vilifying what we do well in this country, let’s start to wonder how we can bring every single school up to a standard we are proud of.

Year 11 prom, hoping GCSEs had gone well...

My name is Sophie, and I went to private school. Why nowadays, can this feel like an admission of guilt?

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