What's the appeal of private education?

07 Jun 2008 BBC News Online

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.


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