When planning your child's education, particularly at secondary level, one question facing many parents is whether to go for the state sector or to go private. For many, of course, there seems no real choice, due to financial restrictions — although this isn't as absolute a barrier as is often assumed. So what are the differences between state and private schools in terms of teaching, pastoral care and regulation? And what are the financial implications of private education?
State and Private Schools — Definitions
You might think the distinction between state and private education is simple, but there are a number of terms use that reflect slightly different ways of running a school. State schools are traditionally run by the local authority and have no selection based on academic ability, but this is no longer always the case. Many state schools are now funded publicly but actually run as academies by private organisations. In addition, a few state-funded school function as grammar schools, selecting students on the basis of performance in the 11-plus exam.
Priva education is broadly divided into independent schools, managed by a charitable trust, and private schools, owned by an individual or company. In both cases, most (though not all) schools offer boarding for the students. The oldest and most prestigious are often referred to as public schools — a fact which often confuses people from countries where a public school means the same as a state school.
Teaching in State and Private Schools
It's often assumed that teaching standards are higher in private and independent schools, and they certainly have inbuilt advantages. For one thing, they can often offer teachers higher salaries, so attracting the best candidates. More significantly, they tend to have much smaller class sizes, allowing teachers to give more individual attention to students. However, the picture isn't actually so one-sided. Teaching standards vary considerably in both sectors, with many state schools offering a high standard while some private schools are less effective. One difference noted by some teacher who have worked in both sectors is that private education is sometimes more focused on getting high grades at the expense of learning to learn. The answer here seems to be not to assume one sector is automatically better than the other, but to assess each school on its individual merits.
Pastoral Care in State and Private Schools
Pastoral care is perhaps the area where the private sector has the clearest advantage. A combination of a lower student-to-teacher ratio and the residential house system means that most private and independent schools have the ability to pay more individual attention to each student's welfare. The main problem faced by state schools in this area, besides the large classes, is that teachers' time is under much more pressure. They work long hours on the academic and administrative sides of the job, leaving them little time to get to know their students.
Regulation in State and Private Schools
One of the biggest differences between state and private schools is that state schools are obliged to follow the national curriculum and are subject to inspection by Ofsted, the government regulator for education. Private and independent schools have neither of these obligations. This potentially has advantages and disadvantages both ways. On the one hand, private schools are free to be more flexible with their curriculum and don't have to devote a substantial proportion of their teaching time to satisfying Ofsted. On the other hand, standards aren't held to account in private schools as they are in state schools, leaving the risk that the students could receive a poor education.
The Financial Aspects of State and Private Schools
Private and independent schools tend to be expensive — typically anything between £10,000 and £43,000 per year, depending on the quality and reputation of the school. It is possible to get in without paying this much, though. Some private schools and all independent schools offer scholarships and bursaries that cover part or all of the fees. Even so, only about 1% of children in private education pay nothing. In contrast, no state school charges for education, whether a comprehensive or a grammar school.
If you can afford the fees without incurring major sacrifices, you might consider a private or independent school worth the cost. If you might struggle financially with these fees, however, there are other options. You can try to find as good a state school as you can in your area, and then boost your child's education with extra lessons from private tutors, which are unlikely to cost nearly as much overall as full private school fees. Register with TutorExtra to find out what private tutors operate in your area, as well as other information about your child's education.