Sneered at for sending our children to private school: Once a middle-class aspiration, parents who’ve made huge sacrifices to afford private education are now caught up in a bitter divide
Rachel Toner, 35, music tutor, and her son Moses, four, who’s in reception at a private school
When Rachel Toner kissed her son goodbye on his first day at school in September, she did so with the same mix of trepidation, excitement and sense of loss most mothers will recognise.
What she wasn’t expecting, however, was a slight sense of guilt.
Rachel and her husband had eschewed the local state primaries in Lancashire to enrol five-year-old Moses at a £2,800-a-term independent school. And this, according to many parents, marked her out as either a snob, a class traitor — or someone who made them uncomfortable about their own perceived parenting shortcomings.
‘One mother actually burst into tears and said I was making her feel like a bad mother because she couldn’t afford private school,’ says Rachel, 35, a music tutor, who’s married to Rob, 37, a business intelligence support officer in the NHS.
‘There was also the time I wanted to take Moses straight from school to a dance class. “Oh no, you must take him home and take his uniform off first!” exclaimed my friend, whose children are at state school. When I asked why, her reply was: “Because if other children see a private school uniform they’ll assume he’s posh and rich and will pick on him.”
‘I was horrified that my friend clearly thought that Moses being at private school should be treated like a shameful secret.
‘Others have told us smugly we’re wasting our money and asked why we didn’t consider state education good enough for our child.
‘Rob and I both went to state schools and we live in a modest three-bedroom end of terrace, but we visited a lot of schools, both state and independent, and felt this was the right one for Moses. It just happened to be fee paying. We work hard and want to do what’s best for our son, but it seems that choosing private education doesn’t sit comfortably with some people.’
It certainly doesn’t. Recently, top headmaster Shaun Fenton said that parents are being unfairly criticised by what he called ‘virtue flagging’ friends and colleagues.
Mr Fenton, head of £18,720-a-year Reigate Grammar School and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents 292 of the country’s most prestigious schools, said parents often get a ‘hard time’ about sending their children to fee-paying schools and urged people to ‘lay off’ those who choose private education.
Parents often get a ‘hard time’ about sending their children to fee-paying schools, the chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference said
‘If the alternative is that you sacrifice the interests of your children’s education for some kind of political ideology or some kind of virtue flagging, that doesn’t seem to be authentic parenting,’ said Mr Fenton, who has previously been head at a state comprehensive.
Addressing headteachers at the autumn HMC conference in Manchester, he pointed out that many parents ‘sacrifice and save’ to pay for fees. It’s true that private education is no longer the preserve of the privileged. Private — or independent — schools have never been more subscribed.
According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), there are currently 529,164 pupils at its 1,326-member private schools, which include Harrow, Eton and Rugby, a rise of 1.2 per cent since 2017 and the highest number since records began in 1974.
Despite school fees also at record levels — having risen by 3 to 4 per cent in the past two years, with the average now £4,535 per term, or £13,605 per year — parents are digging deep.
For the uncomfortable truth is, with private schools, you do get what you pay for: private school pupils outperform their state counterparts by two to one, with nearly half of A-level entries at ISC schools achieving A* and A grades, double that of the state sector.
More privately educated pupils go to Oxford and Cambridge, and research has concluded children from fee-paying schools will have earned as much as £200,000 more on average than state school pupils by middle age.
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Yet still middle-class parents like Rachel feel they are being traitors to the state. ‘There’s an assumption that if you send your kids to private school, then you must be fantastically wealthy and sniffy about state education,’ says Rachel.
‘It’s absolute nonsense. I’m often afraid to even mention my son’s school in front of other people.
‘And on the rare occasions I do, I feel I have to apologise for him being in paid education.’
Rachel now works more than 60 hours a week to pay for her son’s schooling. Meanwhile, her husband proactively ‘improved his skill sets at work’ and has been promoted to a job two pay bands higher.
‘Even my mum, who was a house matron in a posh boys’ boarding school 40 years ago and would have loved to send me to private school had she and Dad been able to afford it, is perplexed by my decision. She told me: “If you send him to this school, he will never want to bring any of his friends home,” assuming that we’ll be poor by comparison to the other parents.
Ankita Stopa from London, a business owner, and her two children Jasmin, 10, and Milan, six
‘It’s not about money, it’s just that this is the choice we’ve made. Moses is in a class of 20 children at his private school versus 35 kids in the classes of the state primaries we looked at.
‘The best teacher in the world wouldn’t be able to give the same attention to 35 kids as they can give to 20, and I speak as a teacher.
‘As for extracurricular activities, some state schools offer brilliant opportunities, but Moses is already learning French, and he’s able to do ballet, drama and martial arts if he wants to, plus the pastoral side is fantastic.
‘The school devotes time specifically to confidence building and life skills to keep the children’s self-esteem high.
‘Our decision is already paying off because he bounces in and out of school every day.’
Dr Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of education think-tank The Sutton Trust and addresses parental guilt and private education in his book Social Mobility And Its Enemies.
‘Many people from less wealthy backgrounds feel it’s unfair if money — not talent or hard work — can gain advantage in education,’ he explains.
‘But all middle-class parents are to some extent enemies of social mobility. This is not just parents sending their children to private schools, but parents buying houses near top state schools, or those paying for private tutoring. Talented children from disadvantaged homes just don’t benefit from the same support.
‘One of the problems is people assume all private schools are the same as the small cadre of elite public schools seen as detached from the rest of society — and indicative of the class divide that still persists.
‘The truth is that many highly selective state schools are just as privileged as “normal” fee-paying schools.’
Business owner Ankita Stopa, 42, has spent years fending off nay-sayers. Her children Yasmin, ten, and Milan, six, have been at a private prep school in London since nursery.
‘Only a few weeks ago, a friend was passively aggressively complaining that she can’t afford to send her three kids to private school “like you can” while wearing expensive designer clothes and telling me about the luxury holidays they’ve booked,’ says Ankita, who is married to Robert, also 42, a financial adviser.
‘There’s a constant assumption that because we chose a fee-paying school we are rich and our children are privileged.’
Ankita attended state and grammar schools in the Middle East and the UK, while Robert was privately educated in London until 11.
They put Yasmin’s name down at the prep school when she was just six months old after being impressed by its village school mentality and the fact that the headmistress could name every child. It seemed natural that Milan should follow.
With school fees having risen by 3 to 4 per cent in the past two years, with the average now £4,535 per term – parents are having to dig deep
They currently fork out around £24,000 a year in fees, a figure that will rise when their children go to secondary school, plus an extra £3,000 a year for them to use the school bus, as the school is not in walking distance.
‘I often feel I need to apologise for my children’s education, but why should I?’ Ankita continues. ‘I wouldn’t dream of judging anyone else for the schools they choose.
‘My children’s school gets decent exam results, but more than that it’s just a really lovely place with small classes of around 20 children.
‘It’s also full of like-minded parents who are encouraging of homework and attend nativity plays, swimming galas and sports days in their droves.’
Ankita says she’s currently enduring a new level of judgment from friends and family now that she’s searching for a private secondary school for Yasmin for September 2020. As the closest one in London would necessitate three hours of travelling a day, she’s considering weekly girls’ boarding schools in and around London instead.
‘It would cost £30,000 a year, so we have to be absolutely certain that it’s right for her,’ Ankita adds. ‘Boarding would mean Yasmin wouldn’t have to travel every day and could use that time to rest, study and make friends. But people are accusing me of passing the parenting on to the school.’
Though Ankita concedes that with a four-bedroom home in Canary Wharf, they’re a long way from being financially stretched, she says they do make sacrifices to afford the hefty school fees. They recently replaced their 11-year-old family car with a slightly newer one and keep holidays to two a year. ‘I wear High Street clothes and we always fly economy. Our decision to choose private education wasn’t borne of wealth or status, it’s about wanting what’s best for our children.’
Four years ago, Simone Fassom took her children, then aged five and eight, out of their state primary after enrolling them at a fee-paying school, a decision that left many other parents agog.
‘They couldn’t understand it because it was an Ofsted outstanding primary school with a long waiting list,’ explains Simone, 42, whose husband is an accountant.
‘Our daughter really struggled at the school and was terribly quiet. Teachers would tell us how good she was at helping other children, which left us wondering who was helping her. She was in a class of 34 and would come home and tell us that she didn’t understand some of the things she was being taught.
‘That affected her confidence because she started to fall behind and the pastoral care she needed wasn’t there.
‘Meanwhile, our son hadn’t had a great time in his reception class of 30 four and five-year-olds. Every time I went into his class it was totally chaotic.
‘I felt I had to justify my decision to other parents by explaining that my daughter wasn’t getting what she needed, but even then there was still a sense of, “Really? But the school is so good.” ’
Simone and her husband certainly didn’t make the private school decision on a whim.
Until then, she’d had a school admin job near home, but with annual fees for both children amounting to around £30,000, she took a full-time post in a communications consultancy in London.
She’s doubled her working hours and has a long daily commute, meaning the children have to stay late after school.
‘There’s an assumption that people who are privately educating their children have pots of money, but we’ve made huge sacrifices,’ explains Simone.
‘We’re not frivolous with money and rarely go out or buy clothes, and if things get financially tricky with fees, then we’ll make further cutbacks such as not having holidays.’
Simone says the scrutiny she felt was exacerbated when they subsequently chose a private secondary school for their daughter, who’s now 12, over the highly rated local grammar schools.
‘When she finished prep school two years ago, she told us she didn’t want to go back to a state school because she was scared of being lost in a big class again,’ explains Simone.
‘Again, lots of people were incredulous, asking questions such as: “Why would you pay for private school when you could send her to one of the local grammar schools?”
‘But just because a school has a great academic record doesn’t make it right for every child.’
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