Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 00:04 UK

Do parents want to go private?

By Mike Baker

Harrow School
Private schools continue to have parent appeal, suggests a survey

How should we react to the news that more parents today would like to choose private education than a decade ago?

The latest Ipsos Mori poll for the Independent Schools Council shows that 57% of parents would leave the state system if they could afford to do so. That is the highest figure since these polls began in 1997.

The first thought, is how does this square with the changes to state schools over the past decade or more? Have things really got worse?

We have smaller classes in primary schools than a decade ago, better-paid teachers, fewer staff shortages, far more computers, and many more new school buildings. In terms of investment, education has done pretty well over the past decade: education spending now absorbs a higher proportion of the nation's wealth than 10 years ago.

Some of the figures show dramatic improvements. There is now one computer for every six primary school pupils compared with one for every 23 in 1994. In 1997, around one quarter of all primary classes contained over 31 pupils. Now it is one in 10.

There has been no shortage of intervention strategies to tackle under-achievement: measures to close failing schools, the creation of expensive new academies, and schemes to target children who fall behind with their reading and maths.

So why is there so little faith in state schools? I think there are two main reasons. The detail of the opinion poll gives us a clue to the first.


Respondents were asked to give their reasons for preferring a private school. The big change from the last poll in 2004 related to school discipline.

Mike Baker
Do parents suddenly want tougher discipline for their own children? I doubt it. It seems more likely that they are concerned about the lack of discipline amongst other people's children.

Better discipline was cited by 30% of parents as a reason for favouring private schools. That was up from just 14% in 2004. It made this the second ranked reason for preferring private schools, ahead of "smaller classes" and only behind the rather generalised desire for a "better standard of education".

So what explains this? Do parents suddenly want tougher discipline for their own children? I doubt it. It seems more likely that they are concerned about the lack of discipline amongst other people's children, causing disruption in the classroom.

So what evidence is there that behaviour in schools has deteriorated? Let's start with truancy. Since 1997, unauthorised absences have fallen in special schools and remained steady in primary, but have risen in secondary schools, particularly over the past few years.

The changes are noticeable but not dramatic. So what about the number of pupils permanently excluded for bad behaviour?

The official statistics show that across all types of schools the number of exclusions is lower now than it was a decade ago.

Knife crime

However, after a sharp fall in the first few years of the Labour government - when schools were given targets to reduce exclusions - the numbers rose again before falling back slightly over the past couple of years.

graph on absences

So, again, not the rosiest picture but hardly a dramatic deterioration compared with 1997.

So, if the concern about discipline is not borne out by statistics, is it public perception of the threat of bad behaviour that has changed?

Maybe the plethora of recent media stories about knife crime amongst young people has persuaded more parents that independent schools are a safer haven.

If a fear of violent behaviour and indiscipline is indeed one of the reasons for the upswing in parents preferring private education are there any others?

The opinion poll itself does not suggest any. All the other reasons given by parents for preferring independent schools show no significant change between 1997 and now. In fact, slightly fewer cite "overall standards" today than did so 10 years ago.

Consumer parents

So, either concern over discipline is the sole reason or there is some other factor at play that has not been cited by parents.

This other factor could be that parents today are much more active consumers of education accountability measures - such as Ofsted reports, exam figures, and league tables - than they were a decade ago.

graph on exclusions

In other words, they are much more used to the idea of shopping around, even if the reality is that they have few options if they cannot afford to pay. So the very measures brought in to persuade the public that under-performance by schools would be highlighted and acted upon could be precisely what is undermining their confidence in state education.

The best performing independent schools - and these are mainly the most academically selective - dominate the upper echelons of league tables.

Today's active "consumer-parent" cannot fail to have noticed that. So, when asked by pollsters if they would like to have a choice of the best schools, it is little surprise that 57% would say "yes".


This latest poll, then, maybe tells us two things: parents are more concerned about discipline now than a decade ago and they are more highly attuned to school exam performance.

Despite what some say, though, I am not convinced the poll proves a dramatic loss of public confidence in state schools.

After all, the rise in the proportion of parents who would like to be able to choose private schools is only six percentage points (up from 51% in 1997 to 57% now). In a sample of just over 2,000 parents that is not a huge change.

It may bring a warm glow to independent schools but, with the credit crunch beginning to bite, they probably need to worry more about the affordability, as opposed to the attractiveness, of their product.

Meanwhile, this is probably best news for those running the "no-frills" chains of independent schools and for advocates of Swedish-style voucher schemes offering subsidised places in the private sector.

As usual we asked for your comments. Here is a selection from the many received:

How can you describe a 50% rise in secondary school truancy as "not dramatic"? Not that this is any useful measure of school discipline. Nor is the level of exclusions. If you actually were a parent with kids in a state secondary school, you'd probably realise that fewer exclusions is itself one of the reasons why parents are concerned about discipline, unruly kids are now being pandered to in the classroom!
Ian Nartowicz, Manchester

The argument that private schools offered better education than state is no longer an issue for parents. It's the quality of peers that your child will be mixing with. State schools are rife with drugs, alcohol and knives. You just don't get that with private education.
Iain Williams, Newton Abbot, UK

As a mother of two children going to a community school in Central London, I can only say that so far we have been very happy with the quality of the teaching and the facilities. What I find is middle class aspirational parents panicking over their children's potential being wasted or underdenourished amongst the mix of a community school. What I find is the paranoia that derives from the class system that plagues this country.
Paula Tome, London

1. Poor class-room discipline (as you say, it's always other people's children who are the problem!) Some teachers maintain excellent order; with many, however, the behaviour of children is a serious impediment to learning. 2. Many teachers are quite poorly qualified. The good graduates, the capable individuals, have gone off to do something else. 3. Excessive time devoted to politically correct subject-matter. 4. Inadequate time therefore devoted to, say, languages (three brief classes per fortnight are doomed to failure). 5. Low demands made of children, on the grounds that the weaker ones won't be able to cope. the result is maybe 20 minutes of home-work per week. That is, not enough to generate any depth of interest, and not enough to develop the ability to work independently. 6. Very little in the way of communication with parents. E.g. at the most basic level, a parent's evening allows meetings with a maximum of six subject teachers. (Of course, you can always contact the school at other times.) 7. Disruption of school timetables by INSET days.
Mike Edwards, Cardiff, Wales

Parents do have an abundance of confidence in certain state schools: they are, of course, the grammar schools, of which a few amazingly still survive. The comprehensive system and its egalitarian ethos have long been the independent schools' recruiting sergeants: a splendid socialist own goal!!
WM Davies,

The answer is very simple. Schools are now much better than they were a number of years ago, leadership is of a much higher quality and standards are higher. The problem is that the Government keeps peddling the message that things are bad in the state sector and that there are too many poor schools - many of these do exceptionally well with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds; but the Government peddles the story that because their 'raw' results are below the national average then they must be poor. They also constantly concentrate on the few schools where there may be real problems and ignore the majority where young people actually do very well. It's hardly surprising that with the constant messaging that state education is in crisis that parents will be worried and hence look to the independent sector where there is selection by social class. Obvious to all except our politicians who are constantly doing the education service in general and our young people in particular a great disservice. I speak as the Head of an "Outstanding" 11-18, mixed Comprehensive School.
Terry Fish, Bournemouth, Dorset

It is natural that parents should want the best for their children and often that is to be found educationally in private schools. In addition to a more bespoke education, children fare better throughout life if they speak correctly and it is almost guaranteed with a private education.
F Fuller, Kent

There are three reasons why some parents choose private schools:
1 Their children will rub shoulders with others who value education.
2 The ethos of the school is one of achievement and aspiration.
3 The local secondary is rubbish.
sk, East Sussex, England

A fall in the number of exclusions may not be an indicator of improved behaviour - it could be quite the reverse!
Ian Johnston, Oxford, UK

Your analysis of exclusions is flawed. It is now incredibly difficult to exclude a child, and it is often done under the guise of a 'managed move' to another school - and this, of course, does not show up in the statistics.
David Winfield, Newcastle Upon Tyne

"The official statistics show that across all types of schools the number of exclusions is lower now than it was a decade ago". As any teacher will tell you, the exclusion rate is NOT an automatic indication of a rise/ fall in indiscipline in schools. Many of the worst school simply push up the threshold for exclusion to ensure that they do not exclude too many pupils. I have worked in schools where being verbally assaulted only results in a detention (at best) because the school wants to keep down its exclusion rate. Schools working to such targets keep more children in school in order to appear to be "improving" - it's as simple as that. In spite of the exclusion figure, I too would argue that discipline has worsened in state schools over the last 10 years, and the perception by parents of this is both real and more accurate than the misleading statistics. It is about time the media acknowledged this truthful observation.
Paul Buckely, Manchester

'There is now one computer for every six primary school pupils compared with one for every 23 in 1994.' 'There has been no shortage of intervention strategies to tackle under-achievement: measures to close failing schools, the creation of expensive new academies, and schemes to target children who fall behind with their reading and maths.' Neither of these statements actually represent an increase in the standard of state education, they just demonstrate the susceptibility of the state education system to fads in education theory, by and large the independent sector avoids these, and so produces a constant flow of pupils educated to a standard.
James, Oxford

I would choose private schools above government every time. I believe parents should have the choice and if we want to opt out of the state system and pay for private schools we should be allowed to. My main reason would be because I want my boys to be at school with like minded children, children that want to learn and achieve. I also believe that when parents pay for a service they expect more from their children so there is a drive from the home for children to achieve.
Melanie Raymer, Derby, UK

There is a perception in this country that something free is of less quality. You may feel better in yourself sending your children to private school but a better education is not guaranteed. Like all these things it's cheap at first but ten years into a private education it might be a bit more expensive than you thought, so plan now, I know loads that don't and their face is a sight.
Dave Lorrell, Chelmsford, Essex

"After all, the rise in the proportion of parents who would like to be able to choose private schools is only six percentage points (up from 51% in 1997 to 57% now). In a sample of just over 2,000 parents that is not a huge change." I believe to discount a result from a statistical survey because of the sample size - when the sample size is, in fact, the industry norm and likely to produce a CL of 98% - a) misleads your readers badly; and b) displays an ignorance about statistics not fitting for one authoritatively commenting upon them.
Nicholas Cullum, London, England

Nice party political broadcast for the Government - usual BBC bias. Some children are fools irregardless of their family circumstances and compensate with violence. Private schools don't take idiot childrens from the poor and they impose discpline on the idiot children of the wealthy. Hence intelligent children can be intelligent without fear of bullying.
Bruce Weir, Eastbourne East Sussex

As a mother of 2, and my first about to start a London state primary in September, I'd agree with Mike Baker. Many parents I talk to say they would send to local independent primary schools if they can afford it, (including me!), and say they don't believe the teaching is any better but it's (1) small class sizes (2) extra curricular activities on offer (sports/ French/ music) and (3) a belief in better-behaved peers in independent sector. I agree with the 1st 2 sentiments, but find many children of Alpha, pushy, aspirational monied parents as rude/ badly behaved as any other child - and don't have poverty as an excuse! So perhaps less spitting and swearing in the playground at private schools, but lots of other unattractive behaviour...
Kirstie, London, UK

Our children both go to the excellent local state comprehensive school. I wouldn't bother sending them to an independent school. These don't seem to longer offer the fast track into the 'old boys' network that they used to, and improvements in the state sector make any educational advantages marginal. In fact several local independent schools have closed in this area, evidence of the quality of local state schools.
Mark Fairman, Matlock UK

After a long wrestle with my conscience, I am sending my daughter to a private school because the expectations are higher and there are more top grades achieved. I have also chosen somewhere where I expect there to be better discipline. By this I don't mean just fewer children playing truant or being excluded, I mean better general behaviour within the class. I mean not having some of the behaviour which is just accepted as normal in state school classrooms, where the teachers are using most of their energy to mantain control, rather than being able to focus on teaching the full range of pupils in the class. I have taught in state schools, been a voluntary helper and governor in state schools. I was lucky to have a very good private school education myself. I am very committed to improving state school education but don't feel that it is good enough yet.
Jenny, Nottingham

I work in a state school (not in Worcester) and run some school teams. We visit a wide variety of other schools, both state and private. It is certainly not the case that the best discipline is always to be found at the private schools. I have had to write to headmasters on two occasions after encountering incredible rudeness. Both the pupils concerned were at private schools.
Andrew Rogers, Worcester

Surely what matters to people is the outcome? Independent schools (generally) deliver a better education on a number of fronts: discipline and academic performance are just two. Opportunities for extra-curricular activities, sport, music, and the facilities available are so often much better. The children are 'self selected' by virtue of their parents' success, assets, and middle class status, and so create a more productive and competitive environment within which learning can take place. As an ex public school product I questioned the value for money, but simply could not afford to educate my own children privately. All three gained good degrees, but not without privately funded tuition to make up for the inadequate teaching provided in the state schools. For the majority, private education is simply not a choice. The fees at my old school now exceed 25K a year. What is important is to explore ways of extending the opportunities for a broader spectrum of children to benefit.
John Walker, Berkhamstead, UK

Mike Baker: have you visited a sink comprehensive lately? Do you know what the children's employment rate is at 16 years old following an education at a sink comprehensive? If these children do secure employment, it's very much a minimum wage job with no future prospects of improvement or promotion. Do you know what the chances of a average-to-lower than average ability child entering a good or excellent comprehensive? Let me tell you - it's VERY slim. If the brightest can't get into a top comprehensive, how do you expect the 'less' bright children to do so? That's why parents like myself chose private education. We are providing our 'average' ability children with the opportunities that only the best "admission impossible" comprehensives provide.
Laura, Derbyshire

As far as I can tell, the areas of the country in which the state grammar system still operates private schools are unpopular with parents (e.g. Trafford, Buckinghamshire etc.). This suggests to me that what parents really want is for their children to go to schools with those of a similar ability and if they can't do that in the state system then they will go private for it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this desire, the facts are quite plain here when you look at the state grammar areas. If the government wants to reduce the number of children in private school, then streaming the state schools in a many-tiered way would be a fair way of doing it.
Sara Daintree, Manchester, UK

Many parents are dissatisfied with the state schooling system in this country - and one of the results is a dramatic rise in parents choosing to home educate their children. some of the causes of this are bullying, narrowed curriculum, over-testing and lack of individuality in approach. None of these were listed as options in this survey, perhaps they also contribute to the desire for private education. The state schooling system encourages bad behaviour and misses those children who are not gifted and not behind. There are many children who do not achieve their potential simply because teachers do not have the time to work with individuals to discover what their potential is. With private schools having to deliver to obvious consumers perhaps they feel more accountable on an individual basis rather than an average child in a table basis.
Jenn Impey, Hayes UK

I am a teacher, and I pay for my children's education for three reasons:
1. The vast majority of government interference in education does harm, not good. Private schools can reject the rubbish. Underestimate the effect this has on pupil progress & development at your peril.
2. Disruption is simply not tolerated. There is no pressure on keeping exclusion figures down, no endless supply of second chances, but a clear application of the principle of consequences for actions.
3. Private schools have supportive parents. A significant minority of state school parents condone their child's poor behaviour, and will stand in the way of school discipline. Only one or two examples of this per class is necessary to wreck your own child's chances. This is a massive problem that politicians lack the backbone and integrity to face.
Gareth, York, UK

My husband and I actively chose our local comprehensive school in inner London for our two teenage children as did many of our local friends. It was important to us that a reasonable proportion of the pupils in the school should come from reasonably well-educated backgrounds similar to ours. This wasn't for socially snobbish reasons but because, while we are very pleased with the general ethos of the school and the tuition in a number of subjects (maths and science, particularly, which are set by ability) the one area in which the school fails our children is by not providing a culturally rich English and Arts curriculum. Having friends around them from well-educated backgrounds means that they are not adrift in an ideology-driven cultural desert. (The texts that the pupils read in English, which is taught in mixed ability groups, are chosen deliberately to engage the less interested and/or able children.) However, while our children don't lose out all that much because we can supplement their education at home, I am 100% convinced that the cultural education of those from more educationally deprived backgrounds is being, frankly, sabotaged in the name of political correctness and by a well-meant but misguided (and somewhat patronizing) intention to reflect experience rather than expand horizons.
N Sherman, London

We opted out of the state system from the start and chose to home educate. It probably works out cheaper to have one partner staying at home and education the child than for both to go out to work in an attempt to fund private education. We don't have to stick to the national curriculum, and so are immune to the latest trendy government interference, class size is really favourable, we don't have to take holidays at peak times and our son gets to learn things in a way that works for him, rather than the way defined by the system.
Dave, Cambridge, UK

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