The ultimate school gate showdown! This private school mum says state school failed her son and she’s now given him an edge over others. Nonsense, says the state school mum: Paying just produces cosseted elitists. So who do YOU agree with?

The ultimate school gate showdown! This private school mum says state school failed her son and she’s now given him an edge over others. Nonsense, says the state school mum: Paying just produces cosseted elitists. So who do YOU agree with?

With a potential incoming Labour government pledging to impose VAT on private school fees, the question of whether to send your child to state school or go private has never been more pressing… Here JILL FOSTER hears from two mums – one who claims the state system allowed her son to become the class clown and that moving him to a £40,000-a-year private school is the best money she’s ever spent, and the other who insists independent schools produce self-absorbed nonentities who don’t know how to connect in the real world – as they each argue their side of the story…

I was bullied at state school but it made me all the more determined to go state – I abhor the idea of paying for education on principle 

By an anonymous state school mum

Monday morning at 8.30am and I wave my daughters off to a busy day at their all-girls secondary school, their blazers pristine and their white shirts freshly ironed.

Fifteen-year-old Marnie is a prefect and she’ll be staying late for debate club. The school’s eloquent team are top of their league.

Betsy, 12, has after-school Latin club. She’s taking Latin as well as Spanish at GCSE.

Their school is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and excels in science subjects. It also has fabulous arts and languages provision. Every year, smiling girls jump for joy with their A-level results, before going on to top universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London.

And guess what? It’s all free.

I abhor the idea of paying for education on principle. Instead, my daughters go to our nearest state school in south-east London. There are no fees and no entrance exams, not even a banding test to assess prospective pupils’ ability (in order to supposedly make admissions fair to all) like many of the other schools round here.

It’s not that I’m envious. I’m a single parent, so of course private school would be a stretch, but my aunt adores my girls and offered to pay for their education, at a cost of £43,000 a year. She was shocked when I declined.

State schools may lack the Hogwarts-style window dressing, but they can produce magic, say those who send their children there (Picture posed by models)

Watching the hordes of streetwise, noisy girls streaming through the gates would probably have the precious seven per cent of parents who send their kids private clutching their pearls, but they’re wasting their cash.

State schools may lack the Hogwarts-style window dressing, but they can produce magic. Open day sealed the deal for me. The headteacher chose two perky sixth formers to give speeches. They were smart, eloquent and confident, all qualities I want for my girls.

Then a quieter girl stepped up to the lectern and nervously admitted she’d struggled with both home and school life and was supported by the school to do her best. The headteacher, a formidable woman, spoke about the school being one of the true community schools around, with a significant proportion of pupils on free school meals.

A nearby grammar school I’d visited was lacklustre, but this felt different. Four languages on offer, plus Latin. I hated PE at school, but the gym was full of ‘fun’ equipment, including treadmills. Wall displays showed that Black History wasn’t just for one month and posters promoted an LGBTQ+ art club for pupils. Everyone was welcome.

I was shocked to read recently that eight out of ten parents are using their own money to give their poorest pupils essentials they don’t have. Like lunch. Or a warm coat. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve spoken to teachers who’ve gone above and beyond, offering free breakfasts, targeted after-school clubs and catch-up tuition. State school teachers are like a wave of support, willing every child to succeed.

My anti-private views do raise a few eyebrows, but my principles are important to me.

When Betsy’s two best friends suddenly started turning down playdates in year five of primary school, I realised they were being tutored for their Eleven Plus. I did agonise about splitting up the friendship group, but I refused to let Betsy take the exam for grammar school. Not only was it too much pressure at the age of ten – why should the privilege of a grammar school place be awarded only to children whose parents have forked out the cash to teach them non-verbal reasoning?

That led to uncomfortable conversations with the other mums, who came close to admitting they didn’t think a south-east London comprehensive was good enough for their children. My best friend, an ex-boarder at Marlborough College (where alumni include the Princess of Wales and fees are a whopping £15,000 per term) claimed it was tantamount to child abuse to put the girls into state. I know some parents who have only had one child just so they can afford private.

Another friend is paying £7,000 a term for her daughter to go to the all-girls private school. I sometimes wonder what she thinks would happen to her little darling if she had to mix with state pupils. Riots in the corridor? Cooking up crystal meth in the science lab?

I actually think her daughter would benefit from mingling with some of the 1,400 pupils who come from miles around (yes, the catchment is large). I imagine she’ll come out blinking into the real world at 18, having never met someone on free school meals. My youngest daughter wasn’t confident, but being part of a larger school means she’s had to make herself heard. I’m very proud to say she’s found her voice, and then some.

The number of disadvantaged pupils at the school is above average (no surprise in our borough, where food banks are a part of everyday life), but what’s also above average is the number of girls who go on to higher education and employment.

Going to a state school gives my girls a rounded view of the world. Betsy brings in extra ingredients to cookery classes to help out her partner, whose family struggle to afford what she needs. Marnie’s friends come from a raft of ethnicities, religions and varying financial backgrounds who are getting their saris and kilts ready for the school’s culture day.

I want my daughters to feel empathy for others. How can you hope to understand what life is like for less fortunate people if you’ve spent your education in an elitist bubble?

Too many members of the current cabinet went to private school and I think that’s why they find it hard to relate to what life is like for people who are struggling with the cost of living.

I firmly believe all children should have the same chances, regardless of how much money their families have – it’s not fair for a tiny proportion to get a free pass to social connections and good exam results because of smaller class sizes and hothousing. And remember, private schools have to maintain those results to keep the cash rolling in, so the pressure on pupils is immense.

When I see ‘hard-working families’ (oh, how I hate that phrase) moaning they’ll have to cut back on holidays or the weekly Waitrose shop if Labour scrap the tax breaks on private schools, I find it laughable. I’d like to reassure them that if they do have to pull their precious ones out of private, it will all be OK.

I went to a tough state school and was bullied for being a geek, but it just made me all the more determined.

I hope the tide is turning on private schools’ VIP lanes to Oxbridge. When I read about rapper Stormzy funding Cambridge scholarships for black students or the fact that private school pupils are a third more likely to get into Oxbridge if they move to a state sixth form, I feel as though we’re edging closer to equality.

When I went to university in the early 1990s, I found that former private school students stuck together while the rest of us piled into the student union. Later, at work, I could spot a private school/Oxbridge graduate a mile off because they were the ones that shouted loudest in meetings but had the fewest ideas.

Paying a fortune to buy privilege just feels wrong when others are struggling to pay for basics. If I had all the money in the world, I’d still choose state for my kids. If they work hard, they’ll thrive anywhere.

We pulled our son out of a state school and sent him private because the class sizes were too big and he was playing up. I fear if too many parents leave, the school will close 

By an anonymous private school mum

Every time I see my son’s fabulous school I catch my breath. It’s a beautiful, 200-year-old building surrounded by fields, with its own chapel and boarding houses where Thomas stays from Monday to Friday.

My husband Michael and I went to state schools so we didn’t even consider going private at first, but within a few years of Thomas, now 16, starting primary school we were disillusioned.

Thomas is a bright boy, but by eight years old he was the class clown. There were too many children in his group for one teacher to manage effectively and not enough focus on discipline, so he could get away with not paying attention. We realised that if we didn’t do something, he would fall in with the wrong crowd.

Smaller class sizes are a major draw for many who send their children to private school (Picture posed by models)

Michael and I live in a lovely five-bedroom house and are very comfortably off, but we are not millionaires. So it was a big decision to go private. We drew up a spreadsheet to work out what we could afford.

At the moment we are paying just under £40,000 for Thomas’ education and just over £20,000 for his sister Amelia, who is 12. There’s another £11,000 for their younger sister Katie, six. It adds up to more than £70,000 after tax. We have another daughter – Scarlett, one – who will be starting in three years, although Thomas will have left by then.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. We feel we are doing everything to help them in their schooling and for their future, that this gives them the edge, in terms of possibilities and connections. Of course, their schools’ academic results are fantastic, but their education is also designed to instil confidence, resilience and independence.

It’s down to simple things like shaking hands with teachers. When I first went to a job interview I was nervous about shaking people’s hands, but in the private sector this sort of worldly experience is instilled in children from the start.

The staff at Thomas’s school are wonderful, so communicative and open with parents and the discipline is strict. If the boys are not wearing uniform correctly or are disruptive in class – or even disorganised – they get ‘clearings’ which build up and mean a Friday night detention.

The school offers every sport you can imagine, from tennis to polo. There are chess clubs, choirs, the chance to learn a musical instrument.

As well as the usual skiing trips, there was a trip to Madagascar recently. Of course, you have to pay extra for these things, so we’re quite grateful that Thomas has not been too interested. One of the things he has most enjoyed is the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) activities in which they learn skills from the Navy, Army and Royal Air Force.

Private schools are often set in beautiful surroundings (Picture posed by models)

 Amelia and Katie’s school is a much smaller prep school with fewer than 150 children. It’s gorgeous, set within parkland and, although this may sound like a cliché, it’s like a real family. Everyone is kind, the children are nurtured and when you drop them off – Amelia boards only two nights a week – you know they are safe. It’s not one of those schools that seems to ‘hothouse’ children purely for academic results.

One of the huge benefits is small classes – no more than 20 pupils. I can’t imagine what some state school teachers have to cope with in classes of 35 or 40. You must spend half your time disciplining one half, while the other half wants to learn.

Small classes are perfect for Amelia as she is not particularly academic. If she was in a large class, I think she’d hardly ever say a word. She has mild learning difficulties so she gets lots of learning support, even extra lessons to help build her confidence. There is no way she’d have that in the state system.

That’s not to say I hate state education. Most of my friends’ children are in state schools and I hear mixed reviews. Some love it, some hate it. Some have good results, some don’t. It’s probably fine if you are clever – or rich enough to buy a house in a good school’s catchment area.

There is real concern among private school parents right now about Labour’s proposal to add 20 per cent VAT to school fees. I’m on a few forums on social media where we’re all discussing what might happen. Some previous Conservative voters are even saying they would give their votes to Labour this time round if it wasn’t for this one policy. It will do the exact opposite of ‘levelling up’ – making private education the preserve of the super-rich only.

I don’t expect much sympathy but adding 20 per cent on to a bill of nearly £40,000 for just one child is going to make a huge impact. Thankfully, we can just about absorb it, particularly as Thomas will have left school by the time our youngest joins reception.

But one woman I know is saying she’s worked all hours as a single mum to be able to pay the fees but adding another 20 per cent means she will have to move her son. Others that they might have to move house to get their children into another school. Some are even thinking they might have to home educate their child because there will be no state school places available.

My main worry is that if too many children have to leave our prep school it might close, then where does that leave us? And what will happen to state school class sizes if they are having to take in more former private school children? I don’t think Labour has thought through this plan.

A campaign is developing through parental WhatsApp groups, advising us all to contact our local authorities with urgent requests for school places, starting in September.

The hope is that the reality of having thousands of private school pupils descending on the state system will spook the teaching unions, who could then block Labour’s policy, on the basis that the schools their members work in will be overrun.

Thomas has said he wants to leave his school after his GCSEs this year and transfer to a local state college for A-levels. It’s a huge relief financially, but perhaps it’s also time he had a little more ‘real world’ experience.

One of the (few) pitfalls of private education – particularly at such an elite school – is that it doesn’t give you a realistic world view. Thomas has some super-rich friends who are always jetting off to the Caribbean or the Alps for half term and we simply can’t keep up.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have changed his experience for the world. He’s had the best education money can buy and I’m relieved we can give the same to our girls.

(As told to Jill Foster. Names have been changed to protect identities.)

Jill Foster

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