A Rational, Progressive Parent's Secondary School Dilemma

My twins are finishing Year 5 and after many months of being asked ‘What are you thinking for the twins’ school?’ and not really having an answer, I got my act together. As a bleeding heart progressive, I am really torn about independent vs state schools. 


We have an older child, 3 years older, in a very selective independent school, and he’s happy there. He went when he was in Year 4, the result of his father wanting him to be in a more challenging environment. To be very honest I wasn’t really paying attention back then, I had certain mixed feelings, but I was neutral-to-supportive. He’s reasonably happy there now so all good. But I'm not sure I would have made the same choices. 


Certainly my thought process is different now, facing the secondary school process again. We have a state secondary school across the street from us that gets good results, and my position with our kids has always been that we have a very good, close and free secondary school across the street from us that I’d be happy for them to go to. 


Unfortunately we have our older child crowing about how his school is the best in the country (the superlative tendency extends to many areas of his life), and we have our twins saying that the school opposite us is bad - something I can only assume they’ve heard from their friends who have heard it from their parents or siblings. 


This enrages me and I have repeatedly explained to my kids that comparing a comprehensive school that doesn’t get to choose its students and is state funded to an independent selective school is not a fair comparison. And that actually a school like the one across from us that gets the results it does is a very good school indeed, and an independent school that gets great results does so in large part because they get to pick the students that are the most prepared and capable, so actually the school itself doesn’t deserve all that much credit. 


Having read through a LOT of research and commentary on the subject, it seems pretty clear that so much of how a child will do is a result of their own inherent ability and personality, and their family circumstances - NOT the school itself. So parents who send their children to expensive independent schools are literally paying for access to a higher-income community and environment - not the education itself. 


I’ve been quite surprised and saddened by the fact that many parents have dismissed state schools out of hand, the inequality that is both a cause and result of the state-independent disparity and how little thought is given to value for money. 


So theory and ideology aside, what am I actually doing about it now?


My twins are now being tutored to prepare for selective secondary schools. I want them to go through the selection process experience so they go through the exercise of having a goal to aim for and prepare for, for them to know where they stand in terms of academics and test-taking, and for them to understand the value of creating options for themselves. (The truth is that as far as I can tell, they are not pushed very hard at their current state school - though I don't think that means that they're not getting a good education.)


If they end up having the option to go to an independent school, their dad and I will have to have the discussion about what that will do to the family finances - which is not insignificant. It is a HUGE financial commitment, one that I’m just not at all convinced is worthwhile. 


I have, for example, floated the idea that if they are accepted to an independent school and choose to go to our local state secondary, we would pay them some of the money that otherwise would have gone to school fees - an idea that was inspired by the Five Guys origin story. (Arlington, Virginia, 1986. Jerry and Janie Murrell gave their five sons a choice, ‘Start a business or go to college?” The business route won and the family opened the first Five Guys – named after the five brothers.)


For all my researching and pontificating, the wild card that I’m not sure how to address will be my children’s desires. They will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by their friends, and I know it will be difficult if they desperately want to go to an independent school. For my part I would be very happy indeed to send them both to our local state school, and even happier to send them to a selective state school nearby. Depending on the options they end up having, we’ll have to cross that bridge if and when we come to it.


Relevant reading:


Should you send your children to private school? from the Economist


"Recent evidence suggests that for most privately schooled children in Britain and those who attend elite private institutions in America, the advantages of an expensive education remain robust." Where 'advantages' are measured in terms of increased earnings over time. (But the article doesn't address how the increased earnings compare with the cost of the schooling.)


Private schools are a waste of money from the Critic (a British politics/culture online magazine)


"Using Killik’s own figures, if parents put the average annual cost of school fees (£40,000) into an investment ISA at the reasonable rate of eight per cent compound interest per year for 11 years (7-13 prep school, 13-18 boarding), their investment would be worth £676,000, with £236,000 gained."


Nappyvalley thread about private vs state and another 


Consensus seems to be - private only if you can very comfortably afford it. 

"At the end of the day, if your child is not academic and is not willing/able to work hard, then they probably will not get a great deal of benefit from private education."