Much is being written about the effectiveness, public-spiritedness and even the morality of sending one’s children to private school. This old ground has been raked over by news of the Government’s supposed attempts to encourage employers to “aim off” for candidates from the state sector and give them preference over an equivalently-qualified candidate from a private school background. This all seems a non-issue, as I suspect that most employers already do that, on the grounds that a candidate that achieves “against the odds” is more likely to exhibit the sort of character the employer is looking for.
Still, it did elicit much comment about the iniquity of private school parents unfairly giving their children a leg up. There are quite a few parts to this debate: the alleged poor quality of the state product, the private schools’ tax status, and the amazing concentration of those from the private sector in certain professions like the Law. I want to concentrate on where I think most people are missing the point: the reasons for sending your child to a private school in the first place. Most of the commentators (both for and against) regarded it as obvious that parents are choosing private education to allow their children to “get on” in a way that is not so possible in the state sector. That, to me, a private sector parent, seems wrong-headed and far too narrow, and it may all hinge on what we call these schools. I send my children to a public school, which, confusingly, I pay for, at which point most people will sigh and tell me to stop being so parochially English and use the international “private” description. However, there is a difference, and it’s bound up with why I choose to pay for my children’s education. Let me explain.
Public schools are called public because in the dim and distant past they were set up to educate children who could not afford to be educated at home. The best public schools tend to exude a service ethos (which isn’t surprising, given their history of supplying the British Empire with its administrators), where the pursuit of high standards in many different areas of life is championed, giving a child self respect and not a little humility. Thus excellence on the sports pitch is given almost as high a priority as achievement in exams. This seems to be the opposite of the state sector, where there is a requirement to demonstrate excellence, and the grades are bent to suit. Smaller, “private” schools simply play this grade game more effectively, using smaller class sizes and fewer disruptive students.
How quaint and out of touch, I hear you say: the modern world has moved on from such Victoriana. What really counts are the grades and who you know for the internships. Well, I disagree, which brings me back to the first paragraph. Employers, faced with a blizzard of top grades, are desperate to find a good level of intellectual attainment coupled with evidence of character, that difficult to define quality that hints at grit. Given the fact that our children’s working lives will look very different to those we experienced, they need resourcefulness, self sufficiency and a positive outlook on life to solve problems. It’s just such a shame that the public schools are so damn expensive.