State or private school?

Fox Primary School in Notting Hill

In recent years, an increasing number of readers and clients have asked me about state education and if it is really worth paying private school fees. For many expats, particularly those coming from countries where nearly everybody is state educated, the idea of paying high taxes and then having to pay school fees on top is absurd. I am assuming here that you have a choice between the two systems in the first place. You will often hear in the press that only 7% of children are privately educated. This is a slightly misleading statistic in London, as in many councils, the percentage is much higher. It is usually 20-30% of children in zones 1 and 2, and the percentage can be as high as 55% in Kensington & Chelsea. I would really love to see what London councils would do if more families started thinking seriously about demanding a state education for their child.

There are two main reasons the number of families are considering state education is rising in Central London. One is the extraordinary increase in school fees over the last 5 – 10 years. Your average London prep school used to charge around £3,500 to £4,000 per term as recently as five years ago. Most prep schools in Central London now charge £5,000 – £7,000 per term, and they seem to be quite happy to keep raising fees by 3-5% per year (while publicly wondering why only investment bankers and hedge fund managers seem to be choosing private education). Especially if you have more than one child, this will certainly make you wonder if you are still getting value for your money. The second reason is that state schools in London have improved massively in academic terms over the last 10 years, and the performance of children at outstanding state schools, at least in Maths and English, is probably on par with your average non-selective prep school. The beauty of state schools is that all their pupils sit national tests by the end of Year 2 and Year 6, and while some progressives bemoan this, it actually provides great transparency for parents in terms of academic achievement and progress that children make at a given school. In a prep school, you might well be kept in the dark for very long in terms of where your child stands compared to their peers and to national averages.

If you want to consider state education seriously, the best is to do this as early as possible and to choose your property wisely. With catchment areas for the most sought-after schools as small as they are, it is very unlikely that you will end up in the catchment area of a great school by accident. Most families I talk to live in a fixed location, then find out they live in an admissions black hole and will not get into any good state primary and are forced to go private. This even happened to me when my first child was born. I moved into the nice family neighbourhood of Parsons Green because I had friends and family in the area. I did not necessarily plan to stay there forever, so catchment areas did not seem relevant at the time. I did know that a new bilingual French lycee primary had recently opened in the area, and the property we chose happened to be well within the catchment area at the time. Fast forward four years, and the catchment area of this school had first shrunk to 100 metres, which had then caused the school to switch to random allocation by ballot (similar to what Fox Primary has now resorted to lest people move next door to the school a few weeks before the school application deadline). I visited the one community primary that we could potentially get a place at but was not particularly impressed by the academic activities or the classroom environment. The other three state schools nearby were faith schools where we had no chance of being offered a place. Moving to an entirely new neighbourhood proves complicated as your child will be attending nursery locally and would likely need to switch nursery to cover the period between school application and school start. Hence my advice is that if you want the option of sending your child to a state school, choose your location wisely when she is 2 or 3 years old, so you do not have to move again for a very long time.

How do you know if a state school is good? The Department of Education publishes a very helpful website to compare school performance. If you input the name of your local council and then choose primary schools, it will show you a list of all primary schools ranked by their progress score (the progress children make from Year 2 to Year 6), but you can choose to rank them by overall levels of attainment (rather than progress), by the percentage of high achievers, by their Maths score, their English score, or other criteria that are most relevant to you. You can also dig into each school’s data further and find out how many children are categorised as low – middle – high attainers, and see the breakdown of Maths and English scores for children in each of those categories. I would usually want to see an above average progress score and a reasonable share of high achievers in a year group. And you will find some schools that have good attainment because of their favourable intake where the progress children make is far from impressive. You may be surprised by some of the schools that come out on top or not. In addition to that, of course you should visit your chosen schools personally, meet the Head, observe the children in their classrooms and see if you could see your child happy there. Pay particular attention to the learning environment and noise levels at the school. Some children might like lots of action and commotion, but I have found some supposedly outstanding state schools to be relatively noisy places, I was not convinced many children could concentrate there. If teachers have to shout to be heard and seem to be suffering a degree of hearing loss already, it is not a particularly encouraging sign. But let us assume the data looks good and you visit the school and like it, will your child be missing out on anything by attending a state school?

Some parents worry that their child will be lagging behind privately educated peers academically, some are more concerned with extra-curricular activities and others with pastoral care and the overall level of personal attention. Primary schools, state and private, follow the National Curriculum, which emphasises free play and personal development in the Early Years (nursery and Reception), alongside the development of early numeracy and literacy skills, and outlines specific topics to be covered in Maths and Literacy from Year 1 upwards. Both state and private schools would follow this curriculum broadly, but adapting the pace to each child’s need. Children are assessed at the start of each term to identify needs for support or extension.

Particularly in Key Stage 1, state and private schools teach the same material in Maths and English, and differences are very school specific. Some state schools give daily reading books, while others only do weekly reading books. Most private schools will always give daily reading homework. But many state schools give more weekly homework in Maths and spelling than some prep schools in the early years, so you cannot automatically assume that children at a private school will learn more or work harder. If a child attends an outstanding state school that is relatively high performing, you should expect her to develop broadly at a similar level to children at your average prep school. There will be a difference only for the most selective, very academic private schools (such as North London Collegiate School or any pre-prep focusing on 7+ entry into highly selective schools) because the children there tend to start school at a far higher level. But compared to most prep schools till 11+ / 13+ you can expect that children will cover a similar core curriculum and advance according to their natural ability and outside reinforcement.

The biggest difference between state and private in Key Stage 1, apart from class sizes, is the amount of time dedicated to sports, arts, drama, and music. Many state schools only find time for one session of PE or music per week, while most private schools will offer sports 3-4 times per week, with additional 2 sessions per week dedicated to music, art, drama. Due to funding, most teaching in a state school will be done by the classroom teacher, whereas private schools have specialist PE, music and language teachers in Key Stage 1, and add specialist Maths and / or English and Science teachers in Key Stage 2. As a result, if your child attends a prep school, it is likely that they will be getting enough physical activity and enrichment as part of the curriculum, and you would not need to organise additional extra-curricular activities, unless you wanted your child to pursue music or sports in a more serious manner. If you have the time to organise this outside of school and to ferry your child to different activities, the good news is that if you want to do swimming, music, tennis or chess seriously, you would do this at dedicated clubs and squads outside of school anyway, so you could easily send your child to a state school. This is not necessarily easy if you work full-time and / or you have several children to take care of. But I would certainly say that you can find many excellent providers of extracurricular activities outside of school.

In conclusion, an outstanding local state school is a good choice if your child is resilient and independent enough to join a larger group of children, and you feel you can provide extracurricular opportunities for her outside of school. Gymnastics, swimming, singing, drama, or tennis are all activities that would be offered at most private schools but not necessarily in state schools, at least not consistently. From Year 3 or 4, an excellent prep school will usually offer more academic breadth and depth due to specialist teaching and a more demanding curriculum. But the core subjects of Maths and English will be broadly similar, and state schools will provide extension activities for children who are exceeding targets already.

If you want to consider private or grammar school at 11+, you would definitely want to look at past papers and a variety of 11+ preparation workbooks from Year 4 or Year 5, as there may be question types and topics your child will not have covered yet by the time exams come around. At many of the sought-after London state primaries in more affluent areas, you will find that between 20-50% of children will successfully move onto private secondary or grammar schools at 11+. Some state primary schools even publish their leavers’ destinations, likely because they are always asked about it by prospective parents. And some of those lists can look more impressive than your average prep school, so do not believe you absolutely have to send your child to a prep school if you want them to succeed in the 11+ exams.

Further reading

Catchment areas of London’s most sought-after primary schools
Ranking of London state primary schools by attainment

1 thought on “State or private school?”

  1. Hello,
    Can you please tell me whether, in your view, the top private schools are really worth paying the huge fees for? We are French (but intending to stay in the UK, despite Brexit!) and have a child in the French school in London, who has been offered a place at St Pauls Juniors following the 7+.
    How good is the teaching, and the academic opportunities, in such a school as this, is it really in a different league? For a child who is academically very able, is it really worth paying these fees? (we have several children so it will be a stretch). I can see the sporting facilities are excellent, but the fees are so high I would be prepared to organize sporting activities myself outside the school.
    And is there really a significant difference, in terms of the teaching and quality of academics, between St Pauls and for instance Latymer (which has the advantage of being Co-Ed, which seems more natural for us Europeans?).
    Thanks in advance for your help!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top