There was an interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about school choice, where John O’Farrell defended the decision to send his children to state school – more than defended it really. It was an article reacting to an article the week before in the same paper where Janet Murray defended her decision to send her child to private school. Chris sent me a link to it today and as I read it I was (internally… probably) shouting out ‘Yes! This! This!’ because it articulated very well a lot of my feelings about this debate.
I do go through moments where I wonder about private education and whether there would be an impetus that would make us look into it. Sometimes I wonder if one of the girls were not being challenged enough at school would that be enough to make us consider it (obviously, this would assume that we actually had the money to, which we don’t), or if we both were working in-house would a school where they opened 8am to 6pm be useful (one of Janet Murray’s impetuses)? Would it be something we’d consider if the girls were being bullied?
But I really don’t think anything would be enough to push me into doing it. If the girls weren’t being challenged, we would do so at home. If we were both working, we’d probably make use of flexible working policies, have family help out or use a child minder for wrap-around childcare. We’d work something out, anyway. If they were being bullied? I would imagine we’d work with the school to get to the bottom of it and stop it and, if it were really bad, we might look at home education – or just another school.
The thing is, I do think academic learning is important – and we try to help the girls appreciate that, providing educational activities, great books, or just plain showing them how finding stuff out can be really fun – but I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. I think that, frankly, having us as parents is more likely to instil a love of learning than choosing a specific school.
But school is about more than learning to read and write and add up and find out about the Vikings and the Egyptians and what happens when you mix this chemical with that chemical… It’s about being a part of a society, it’s about learning about those around you, it’s about seeing how different people can be and how good that difference is. You don’t just learn things in the classroom, you learn them in the playground, at the lunch table, in the loos. And, one of the biggest problems with private schools is that you do not get that mix. You might get an ethnic mix, though not a huge one, but you won’t get a socio-economic mix. You won’t get (much of) a mix of educational backgrounds among the parents. Other than the occasional scholarship student, you won’t see what it’s like to be too poor to go on the heavily subsidised school trip. You won’t see what it’s like to be truly poor. You won’t get to go on play dates with a wide range of friends – some in council flats, some in Barrett houses and some in huge rambling farm- or town-houses. You won’t get to see a variety of packed lunches or dinners at friends’ houses. You won’t get exposed to different cultures and languages. You might be able to recite Othello and be fabulous at Lacrosse, you might have a much easier route to Oxbridge and you might get a cabinet position a few years down the road. But will you have learnt anything, really?
I love John O’Farrell’s idea of spending what you might have spent on private education on your kids in other ways. If you would have paid £10,000 a year, but instead save that, they could get through university no trouble at all. You could spend that money on extra-curricular activities. You could spend it on travel to fascinating places. Oh, but, here’s another thought. You could give that money to the school – or half of it, even. Apparently (figures from a comment on Janet Murray’s article) state pupils get around £4000 funding a year. If you have the money and want to improve your children’s education, make that up to £10,000. And then you’d be helping other children out, too, wouldn’t you? (Yes, I know, that’s a rather leftie idea, and far too few people would go for that. But it sounds good, doesn’t it?) John O’Farrell was a governor for eight years. You don’t have to make a financial contribution – most people can’t. But if you want your child’s school to improve, then do something about it. Go to the meetings and contribute your ideas. Help out with after-school clubs. Raise some money for the PTA. Or, if you’re not into the idea of giving back and improving your child’s school, just give to them – if you have concerns about their not getting enough music teaching, pay for piano lessons, get a maths tutor if they’re falling behind in maths, take them to museums or on an archaeological dig if they’re not engaging in history… I really do love this idea and, if I’m ever in the position where I could afford to send the girls to private school, I’m going to do that – put a third of it away for their future, give a third of it to their school and use the rest for extra educational stuff.
I know there are other reasons to choose private school, of course. Some of my best friends went to private school. Some of my best friends send their children to private school. I understand there are good reasons to do so (as well as plenty of bad ones, and a fair few misguided ones, of course!). But I really do feel that there probably aren’t any reasons why I would choose this route for the girls and I think Chris feels the same way (well, he sent me the link, after all). (Feel free to make me eat my hat if you bump into RoRo or LaLa down at Cheltenham Ladies College in 2020, of course.)
(I was home-educated and so consider that a perfectly reasonable choice! Of course, I do also realise that a lot of my concerns about private education could carry through to home education – not being in a big mix of cultures and economic and educational backgrounds, for example. There are ways round most of those concerns, though, which I know because I’ve been there.)
What do you think? Did you have a choice and did you choose one over the other? Would you sell your kidney to be able to send your kids to private school for some reason? Do you agree with John O’Farrell that sending your children to private school is doing a disservice to them? Are you still agonising over the decision?