State versus private: which one is right for you?

Have you decided already if you want to go for a state or a private primary school? Are you hearing very conflicting views on this? I talk to parents confused by the views they receive from friends and acquaintances all the time. They range from “private schools for 4 year olds are a waste of money” over “kids at prep schools work 2 years ahead of state school kids” to “class sizes are much smaller in private schools” and many more things you will hear. I’d like to share some views and balanced information on this today to help you make your choice.

State schools usually have class sizes of 30 children taught by one teacher plus one teaching assistant. This is why you always hear there are 30 children in a class at state school, which sounds like a lot of 4 year olds for one teacher when they start in Reception. Do keep in mind there is a dedicated teaching assistant most of the time plus parent volunteers who might come in at some schools to help with reading and other activities. Children do get split into subgroups depending on their abilities and may often work in smaller groups of 6 – 8 children with a teacher and a teaching assistant rotating between groups to help out.

Class sizes at private schools vary widely. They can be as small as 10 -12 children and as large as 24 children, depending on the school. At many schools that have class sizes of 10 – 15 children, there is only a teacher and no teaching assistant, so the child – staff ratio is not necessarily better than at a state school (but do ask each school because it varies). Schools with larger classes of around 20 children tend to have one teacher and a teaching assistant who may split there time between a couple of classes or work part-time. Again, you will have to ask each school you consider, but don’t assume just because a class has less kids your child will necessarily have more individual attention than at a state school. On average, it is true, but it is not guaranteed at every private school.

Behaviour is a very important aspect of school life that can determine how happy your child is to go into school each day. A good school will have clear rules and expectations of behaviour and an effective system of dealing with unacceptable behaviour that involves the child and the parents. This one is hard to judge as an outsider and unfortunately in this aspect you may need to rely on rumours and stories sometimes. A big warning sign for me is if I hear that teachers spend considerable time in class trying to get children to be quiet or to behave, rather than having time to teach the curriculum. I try to pay close attention during school visits how the children interact with each other and their teachers.

Academic level
You only need to look at senior school league tables in London to know that the top private schools on average reach far better academic results than state secondary schools. The problem is that all the schools at the top of the table are highly selective, creaming of the top 5% or top 2% of pupils, which makes comparing their results with inclusive schools difficult. Among primary schools, an added complication is that while we have league tables for the top state primary schools via the SATS tests, very few private schools take part in these tests or publish their results. What I do know from the few private schools who do publish their KS2 results is that while the best state primary schools in London tend to have around 60-65% of pupils working at level 5 or above, the best prep schools have 95-100% of pupils working at that level. Again, of course these tend to be selective schools that exclude anyone who needs more help. My impression is that the level of Maths or English taught at an outstanding state primary school can be of a very high standard and I would not worry too much about this aspect in the early years. You may find that for other subjects, prep schools can afford more specialised teachers and go more in-depth, but again this will depend on each school.

Extracurriculars
This is where many private schools shine, although a large state school could still have an edge over a very small private school. While both state and private schools offer the usual yoga, football, chess, tennis, ballet options at most schools, you may often find a more specialised music department or more professional sports coaches at prep schools. For me, the big plus of prep schools is also the time they dedicate to extracurriculars. At my local state community primary school, there is only one hour each dedicated to music, arts and PE per week, whereas most prep schools dedicate a much larger part of the curriculum to sports, music and the arts.

Cost
>Well, this is a big topic and I will cover this in a separate post. All I can advise you is make sure you factor in all extras (uniform, lunches, extracurriculars), fee increases above inflation and any unforeseen events (redundancy, illness). You need to take into account that school fees are payable termly in advance and you need to have a comfortable financial buffer for this. But this aspect requires much more detail and I will talk about it another time (you can already find out now about affordable private schools in London and prep schools that offer scholarships and bursaries!).

My main advice to everyone is to check all your options carefully, state or private. Make sure you visit the schools and meet the heads so you can make an informed decision, rather than depending on rumours and views of people who made one choice or the other. There are some fantastic state primary schools in London and some very average private schools that are not good value for money (and vice versa!), so keep an open mind!

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