How can state education steal the private marketplace ?

Why would any parent want to spend money on education when it is available free down the road? I mean would they spend £20 on a Big Mac when they could get one exactly the same for £2 down the road? I very much doubt it.  Whilst there are many people who suggest that state education is every bit as good as private, you have to conclude that the private parents believe there is a different product on offer to justify the cost.

Unfortunately in most cases those supporting state education fail to understand or grasp the significance of the major differences such as:   Education standards, aspirations, like-minds, facilities, links with other organisations such as Universities and networking.   The value of each differs between schools and the emphasis parents place on it but like it or not without them people wouldn’t pay for private education.

Education standards is usually where the argument centres and for many people it is the most important criteria. Does it mean better teachers? Not necessarily. I’m certain there are many equally capable, if not more capable teachers working in the state sector. Is it results ? Yes. For many private schools, if they are unable to demonstrate that their average results are better than the state competition then they will struggle to attract the best fee paying customers unless some of the other “differences” are more valued.  To maintain those higher standards, they either need to select the most able pupils in the first place or make sure that those who do come are pushed to the appropriate standards over the years.

This raises two interesting points. Firstly the idea of selection based on ability. This principle was actually led by the state school system and was called Grammar schools. Grammar schools were able to group together similarly able pupils, regardless of their social background in an attempt to provide an education more suited to their needs and create greater opportunity. Where I live there are still a few Grammar schools that are doing fantastically well and as a result, all the private schools are second choice – and we’re talking about some famous names in private schools. Parents will not pay if the free option is as good.

Secondly, how is it possible to raise academic standards to a higher level when the teachers are no better? This is an area that is consistently neglected when it comes to raising academic standards. Government and various education think tanks are constantly banging on about the need to measure and improve the teachers – if it’s not working let’s blame the teachers. That’s simply passing the buck because it isn’t populist to tackle the real issues. Where a private school has an advantage is that the parents have a vested interest in the outcome and that changes the behaviour of both teachers and pupils – as my former boss put it “they have skin in the game”. It gives the teachers the tools needed for control and it gives the pupils two taskmasters. If your parents are paying for your education you will put in some effort, but if you’re results don’t live up to expectations you will be told to try harder not just by the teacher, but by the parents as well. If your parents are paying for your education and they hear you’re misbehaving or not paying attention in class, you will hear about it under “I’ve not been working hard all these years to try to give you the best start in life for you to mess about with your idiot friends. Knuckle down or we’ll look at the local state school” – and the idea of losing your friends and starting again carries some weight.

A Department of Education report in 2010 confirmed that “parental engagement has a large and positive impact on children’s learning” and this followed a report by Professor Charles Deforges, OBE in 2003 that stated “In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups.”

Following closely on the heels of educational standards are like-minds and aspirations. If the primary motive for the parents sending their children to private school is to achieve a certain standard then already you have people with similar aspirations. Parents who’ve been through the same process, struggled with the same decisions and who value education similarly.

Private schools come with parental engagement of a sort already established. State schools simply don’t have that. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t do well in a state school, however the probability is lower. You only need a few disruptive children to hold back a class, but if the parents aren’t sufficiently motivated to play their part in resolving the problem then the teacher loses the tools needed to do the job. The more committed pupils can still achieve their potential, hopefully with the support of their parents to do that, but in the worst case a domino effect ensues and disruption spreads.

Facilities are often raised as being a key differentiator. The wealth of the private school enabling better sporting facilities, more IT equipment, better field trips. I’m quite sure that’s true when comparing many private schools with state. However, it seems to be a point raised more by the pro-state backers, that the private school parent doesn’t place much emphasis on it. I’ve heard plenty of parents comment on how good the facilities are at a school, but never heard of any allowing it to heavily influence their decisions.

And on to the final differentiator and possibly the most misunderstood. Networking and links to other organisations. “The old school tie” is often derided in the world of business and politics. Just by attending a certain school, opportunities open up for you. Some private schools, the elite famous private schools, are less about education and more about networking. Making sure you become friends with people or families of influence so that as you climb the ladder, it’s less about what you know and more about who. Despite the denials to the contrary – I mean everyone wants to believe they are there on merit rather than favours – it is absolutely 100% true.

However, before people march to the Capitol in protest, it is worth considering that the behaviour is not unusual. It would not be unusual for someone raised through the state system to help their friends’ careers, given the chance. Networking and nepotism exists at all levels of society. The key difference is the fact that the networking at the more elite private schools tends to play out at the more influential end of society where the financial rewards are greatest. In that context money buys influence which buys opportunity. But is it the principle of nepotism or jealousy of the rewards at the top that cause us most difficulty? I doubt we’d get too worked up if Lord Sainsbury was giving his old mate Earl Smyth a position on the checkout at the local store, but if he becomes the MD, we might be a little more upset. So I suggest it’s the latter.

Where does all that leave us. Money provides choice and if a parent chooses to spend on education then that is surely their right. It is no different to being free to choose what clothes to buy, where to go on holiday or whether to go to the match on Saturday. It’s your money, you’ve earned it and you can spend it as you see fit.   So why do people draw the line at education (and health).

Is it that health and education are fundamental entitlements that should be available to everyone?  Well they are available to everyone by virtue of the NHS and State schools. So then it must be that it’s not fair for some people to receive “better” than others. Is that based on sound ideology or as above, is it simply jealousy of the  “it’s not fair because I can’t afford it” type. If you break down the ideological argument you can only conclude that no-one should have choice in anything. You simply can’t apply freedom of choice to some things and not to others, purely because you don’t like it. If someone sees a market, is prepared to supply it with a product that people are prepared to pay for then it has to be allowed. I have fairly moderate outgoings because I can’t afford anything much different, but I don’t pretend that high-end spending should be banned.

If you were to ask me whether I think private schools should be allowed then absolutely YES – freedom of choice is a fundamental part of our society and it is a backward step every time we try to erode it – especially with petty jealousy.

If you asked me whether we should need private schools then my answer would be NO. The market for private schools exists largely because of the weaknesses in the state system. If you want to see less private schools then you shouldn’t spend your time attacking them – you should spend your time raising the standards of state schools to reduce the differences highlighted above.

Personally I would like to see selection return to state schools so that we can put like-minded, aspirational children together. Let them be great regardless of their social background – let them flourish and mix with people more likely to push them. I’m not just talking about identifying only the top, putting them together and throwing out the rest. I also want to see streaming going down through all the levels so that pupils are with similarly able and like-minded others and the curriculum and teaching methods can be adjusted according to their needs. When parents start to realise that their child can reach their potential in a state school, many will not even look at a private school.

We need to provide state school teachers with the tools needed to do the job. They are there to teach – not to act as councillors or parents. Stop expecting too much from them and get rid of the ridiculous measurements that simply promote averageness rather than excellence. Encourage better parental engagement. I’m not talking about attending a school fund-raiser. I’m talking about the parent making sure their child knows that a free education is a privilege and not a right. That they are expected to try their best and to behave in school and if they don’t the teacher has the absolute right to discipline them without parental comeback. Make a parent’s evening as much about the what the parents are doing to help as it is about reviewing the child’s performance.

Finally – just accept that nepotism exists at all levels of society. If it happens at the bottom then it will happen at the top and like it or not, you will never get rid of it. However it would be appropriate to break the monopoly of the elite private schools because that level of power amongst such a small number of people is a dangerous thing. Unfortunately, that will take generations to achieve but as with the argument above, it will never be done by attacking the elite. It will be done by raising the influence of other schools. If you want more influence to come from state schools then you must improve the standards within those schools to give the top Universities and employers a better reason to take more students from them. As state school improve, so more influencers will come from them and so the nepotism will spread.

If you have anything to add, then please feel free to comment


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