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private v state - how to choose?

(82 Posts)
Silvertap Wed 10-Feb-16 18:22:03

Hello, we're in the process of looking at schools for our 2 DC's. Both are only still at nursery and due to start over the next two years.

We both went to independent schools so it's a system we both know and have done very well out of.

We've done a fair bit (OK, maybe waaay too much) of research on the local independent schools. The one we've registered them for is the one we think is the best independent locally with the best chance of getting into the best senior school. We've looked at the senior schools to help that decision.

I want to look at the state options but I'm already floundering. Looking up our local primary and secondary the former doesn't even have an open day and the latter just has an open evening once a year in October. I also worry that if we went state with an idea of a secondary in mind we might not get in for catchment reasons. Is it ok just to ring these schools and ask to look round?

I'm aware that all sorts of things might come out in the wash meaning the senior school we are aiming at isn't right for the children as they get older.

We are very lucky that we can comfortably afford private. If we choose this route it shouldn't impact our quality of life or opportunities that much. We lint live extravagant lives now and I can't see that changing.

Then we start discussing whether we'd be better off investing the money for our kids and when you add it up its such a lot of money. Is it worth it basically?

Sorry for waffling! I guess my questions are:
1) How to judge state schools when k don't know the system
2) if we can comfortably afford it is it a bit of a no brainer to go private?


roundaboutthetown Wed 10-Feb-16 20:22:31

Well, as a state school user, I would judge a school that wouldn't let you visit at any time except the annual open evening. Other than that, a school's a school - you presumably have an idea of what you want it to provide, what you are willing to provide for yourself and what you consider to be value for money. Apply those principles when looking at state schools. As with private schools, they will have a website, a report from an inspecting body, might have a school prospectus, will have a reputation locally... and you will get an idea of quality of work and behaviour if allowed to look round during a school day. Our local secondary schools offer visits during the school day for parents and prospective students over the week after the open evening, including meeting with the headmaster, and I don't think they would turn down occasional requests to look round at other times of the year, say if a parent was moving to the area and needed a mid-year place, and the local primaries let parents come in to have a look round if they are asked (as well as having an open morning each year).

Silvertap Thu 11-Feb-16 06:20:36

Thanks roundabout. Thinking more about it overnight I think you've hit the nail on the head with your comment about knowing what you want out of education. I'm not sure we do! I guess we want them to be pleasant functioning members of society as a minimum but also given the opportunities to be the best they can be so they can take advantage of that. Question is, do the extras at private school mean there's a better chance of that I suppose. Will Latin, rugby, small classes and better facilities mean a higher chance of that.

mummytime Thu 11-Feb-16 06:50:01

My DCs (always over subscribed) Secondary allows tours on a weekly basis most of the year (exceptions sometimes during exam season). I refused to consider a primary unless it allowed me to tour.

I would suggest you go and see a couple of State schools, whether or not they are the ones you are really considering. I have been on private tours, and seen other parents be impressed by things in the classroom which were actually copied from the State system and would be seen in any state school classroom.

No one can tell you what will be best for your child. But one great thing is that you can move between the two systems at any time.

State Pros: better usually with special educational needs, have to educate all students, usually more freetime for extra curricula activities, extra curricula taking place out of school so a chance to have a different group of friends.

Private pros: smaller class sizes, often more extra-curricula in school, often selective, sometimes better facilities.

I have known State school teams compete with Prep schools for sport. One of my DC learnt Latin at her State primary, all learnt French (and tried Spanish and German). And I have known bad/very inexperienced teachers in both sectors.

mummytime Thu 11-Feb-16 06:54:15

Oh sorry forgot.

Schools can change a lot in a short time - both sectors. So please don't get too hung up on senior schools.
A change of head in particular can change the whole ethos of a school.

LIZS Thu 11-Feb-16 06:57:06

I wouldn't think about secondary at this stage except in the vaguest terms. In 5-10 years the situation could well have changed as exam syllabi change, free schools and academies get established and so on. Keep an open mind, what suits a child at 4 may not by 7 or 11. What suits one child may not the other. Not all schools are the same even within the same sector - private or state - do you need to visit more than one of each. Most open days take place in the late summer or autumn terms , to tie in with state applications , but private tend to do them more often. They may also require early registration. Also look out for open events like fairs where you get a less formal feel for the school.

AnotherNewt Thu 11-Feb-16 07:01:01

You need to look at the schools available to you, and decide which you like.

Not pick a funding sector.

You can't pick a secondary with any certainty when your DC are still in nursery (and registration that early is not required in one sector, bar a handful of schools, and not possible in other).

You do need to go and see all the schools you are interested in, and then decide which you apply for based on what the schools themselves actually offer. Try to sort out your thinking of what a good education looks like before you start your visits. Because only then will you know what features and ethos are likely to be the best fit.

Talking to other nursery parents about where their older children go to school, what they think of it (both what they like and what would change) can be very helpful.

roundaboutthetown Thu 11-Feb-16 07:43:41

Rugby can be a feature in a state school's sport curriculum, too, worst luck for my ds1!

senua Thu 11-Feb-16 08:29:21

We both went to independent schools so it's a system we both know and have done very well out of.

No, it's a system you both knew. Things have changed a lot in education so base decisions on the here & now.
It seems that money is not a problem so I would buy yourself into the best catchment. If you pay for private schools then the money is gone but if you buy a nice catchment then you can recoup the money when you sell up - it's a better investment, unless you are talking about the top of the tree (Eton, Westminster, etc).

roundaboutthetown Thu 11-Feb-16 08:36:22

Are you hoping your children's school will offer your children all the opportunities available to them, Silvertap? What is your local area like for sports clubs, music tuition, orchestras, drama, youth groups, volunteering etc? Sometimes, in either sector, there is better provision in the local community outside of school than within the school - or something different on offer that is of more interest to your children. Privately educated and state educated children often get to mix together in these sorts of activities outside of school time, so don't forget to factor that (and your capacity to get your children to and from such activities) into the equation. In school time, private and state schools do sometimes have sports fixtures against each other, or hold events or courses in which children from other schools (of both sectors) are invited to take part - so when considering a school, consider it in the context of its local community and how much you want to be involved in the local community, as that can also have an influence on how you achieve your aim of raising pleasant, functioning members of society who have been given the opportunities to be the best they can be.

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 10:07:24


I hope that my post doesn't come across as 'teaching my grandmother to suck eggs', but I know from my DH (no-one in his family went to state schools) how it can be hard to get one's mind round how a different sector 'works'.

Firstly, on 'choice of schools'. For a state primary, although every area of the country allows you to apply to multiple schools, there is frequently not a genuine choice. For many people, the choice comes down to their nearest or catchment school, or an unpopular or isolated one a long way away. For a few people in urban centres, there may be no local school that you are guaranteed a place in.

So whereas for private primaries / preps, you can visit them all and choose one 'as a customer' (though of course there are some which have competitive entrance tests), for state primaries, the first step is to identify which schools you might have a chance of getting your children into as an applicant. The criteria will GENERALLY include distance, but if you are in an area with many faith schools, church attendance / affiliation may also be relevant. If you look on your council's website, they should have an online copy of the admissions guide for the current or last year, which will include all oversubscription criteria - ie how they will allocate pl;aces if there are more applicants than places., if you enter your postcode, is a useful (though not 100% reliable) guide to the schools close to you, and will give an indication - which should be taken with a pinch of salt - as to whether someone living in your address might be within the admitted distance from that school. It is obviously less reliable when it comes to schools with e.g. faith-based admissions criteria.

Secondly, once you have narrowed down to the schools that you have a chance of getting into, you should a) read their Ofsted report and b) ring them and ask to visit on a normal working day.

On Ofsted reports - look VERY carefully at the date. The criteria for the different gradings have changed quite dramatically over the last 5 years, but many schools graded 'Oustanding' more than 5 years ago have not been reinspected. the criteria for an old 'Outstanding' would barely get you a 'Good' now, and many of those schools have become quite complacent in their outlook as they are unlikely to be inspected. A recent Outstanding is more likely to be genuine BUT all inspections are highly data driven, and so a 'Good', or even 'Requires Improvement' school may well be a more interesting and 'striving for better' all round place to learn than an 'Outstanding' one.

On school visits - I have never worked in or visited a Primary where the head has not personally escorted prospective parents round the school on request on a normal working day. Some very popular primaries do try to group parents into workable groups rather than doing individual tours, just to make the process slightly less time consuming. However if tours are not available at all and you are pointed towards an open day, I would worry. You want a school where the head is open, welcoming and wants your involvement, not one where they seek to keep you 'on the outside'.

On 'what you might see' - and what you might not. In state primaries, classes are normally taught in a single classroom by the same teacher all day, and there are not subject specialist teachers nor specific rooms for e.g. science. If this is important to you, then that is more often found in private schools (although even there it is worth asking whether the person teaching the class in the 'science lab' is actually a science teacher, or just the normal class teacher, who might have a totally different specialism). All schools will teach indoor and outdoor PE, but the assembly hall will usually double as the gym, and a local park may serve for outdoor football pitches.

In the Reception class, state and private teaching practice may well differ. Some private schools are very 'formal' from the very start, with lots of 'sitting in rows and learning' [there was a very sad thread a little while ago about a summer-born boy who had had day-long exclusions from his private Reception class because he couldn't sit still through double Geography]. In pretty much all state schools, the Early Years philosophy of 'learning through play' is the norm, so your initial impression of a Reception class might seem chaotic. Do spend some time watching - there is a genuine difference between 'groups of children marauding around aimlessly' [avoid] and 'busy, purposeful play, gently guided by adults'.

On secondary schools - it is worth looking at which school(s) you might b in catchment for, but not worth visiting them at this stage. You could check their admissions arrangements to see if they have any named 'feeder' schools - rare but not totally unknown - as part of your primary school considerations. It is also worth asking the primaries you visit where their leavers typically go on to.

On the 'all round package' between state and private. One of the advantages of the private route is that it is often possible to 'buy the package in one go' - to choose a school where your child can pursue both their academic and extracurricular life. To build that 'all round package', a state school parent may well have to find other external providers of some of the extracurricular areas. The advantage is that you have a wider choice - the v. serious dance class vs the easygoing one, the youth wing of the professional football club vs a Saturday kick around with friends, the music teacher who loves jazz vs the one who focuses on strict classical technique - rather than the 'one size fits all' version that comes with the all-in package. However, it requires more parental input, and if you already know that you will need 8 am - 6 pm care and would love much of your weekend to be free, then it may be easier to buy the 'all in package' rather than the logistical pressures of getting your child to dance / music / county orchestra / football training after school or at the weekends.

Academically, the balance between state and private depends ENTIRELY on the specific schools. If you live in an 11+ area, then private primaries have the advantage that they can coach for the 11+ from the age of 4. State schools are not allowed to do any more than the most basic familiarisation. The vast majority of private schools actively manage out or never admit children with SEN, and so their 'raw' results may look better - but so they should, given the restricted range of ability on entry.

Temporaryanonymity Thu 11-Feb-16 10:12:39

It really does depend where you live. I live somewhere with one private school and it really isn't worth spending money on. The results are way inferior and my son's primary school fencing team even beat theirs ;-)

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 10:18:06

Ooh, sorry, that was a bit of an epic!

On an absolutely personal note, I would choose a good state primary over a private primary unless:

- You already know that you want to send your children to a particular selective private secondary, which you know the private primary prepares children for.

- Your child would be an absolute 'outlier' in the state primary for some reason - whether that be language, culture, or extreme ability / inability in some area.

The only point that I considered private primary for my DCs was for v. able DS, who was an absolute outlier in his first village primary and was made very stressed as a result. In the event, we moved to a different state primary where he had a group of much nearer peers and was extremely happy - and for us, the ability to put together a 'portfolio' of extracurricular activities from community-based providers has been absolutely brilliant, and not something that could have been replicated in-school in either sector.

senua Thu 11-Feb-16 10:39:08

Try to dig deeper on academic results, speak to parents. Both sectors these days boast about achievements that are not solely due to them but are due to parents getting tutors in.

Silvertap Thu 11-Feb-16 13:38:38

Thank you everybody. There's some really useful comments here. Especially to the poster who pointed out the independent system I know is 20 years ago - you're absolutely right, education has changed massively in that time.

I should point out we're stuck living here and won't be moving - the joys of a family business!

I think that's partly why we started looking at secondary schools as we could then pick the primary with the best chance of getting in. Some of the schools we've looked at go from 7-18 too and most of those 7 year olds come from one or two feeder schools.

Good points on what local opportunities for sports etc there are. I know there are state schools that play rugby!

Good advice on Ofsted too - I have been reading reports from 2013 and thinking how on earth can they be relevant.

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 13:53:26

"education has changed massively in that time"

It is so important to recognise that - and to be aware of one's own reactions to it. It's so easy to go into a very 'traditional' classroom - teacher at the front talking, children in neat uniform in neat rows listening - and have a gut feeling 'Ah, that's familiar, that feels 'good'. And then compare it to a room full of groups of children in slightly scruffy sweatshirts, animatedly working with lots of practical materials - and go 'No, that's not good, it's not what I did and I turned out well'.

I mean, I have to catch myself on occasions - I was at a very traditional girls' boarding school - and I have years of modern primary teaching behind me. For someone who hasn't been in education in the meantime, it can be REALLY hard - and of course, not all of the changes are good, so spotting what is different but equally good / better, and what is just different, is definitely tricky.

StrapOnDodo Thu 11-Feb-16 14:11:51

Our local comp wins the county rugby cup every year, sends a good handful of students to Oxbridge and loads to Russell group and other top Unis including the American ones, has orchestras, choirs, chess, drama and other things which are often presumed to be off the menu in state schools. The local private school recently closed and there is no grammar system here which helps. Our school also has excellent facilities for special needs children.

I suppose I'm saying all schools are different, there are good and bad in both sectors, and the only way to decide is to do your research locally.

DeoGratias Thu 11-Feb-16 14:52:40

I went to private schools only and my children have and it's worked out really well for us. I don't think you'd like it in state schools. It's very different.

roundaboutthetown Thu 11-Feb-16 16:16:32

"I don't think you'd like it in state schools." grin

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 16:28:07

Have to laugh grin

Here's an OP, who openly says that she's floundering with the state system because it's unfamiliar to her, and she's not sure how to judge them - basically someone who has the self-knowledge to acknowledge their own potential prejudices and how their lack of knowledge might mean that they aren't necessarily equipped to make a balanced judgement....which IMO, regardless of the option she finally chooses, is extremely admirable.

And then we have Deo / Xenia.....

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 16:34:25

Deo, I genuinely wish I could take you for a tour round equivalent classrooms in our local state and private primaries - and in particular to show you the work that each class is doing.

I fear that you might be blinded by the blazers, pinafores and shorts vs the sweatshirts, but I think if I could give you anonymised work samples you'd be very, very surprised.

BeaufortBelle Thu 11-Feb-16 16:42:29

I think a state primary can be very good and very successful. You are lucky in that you can give it a go, if it works out pop the money in their uni/trust funds and switch into the independent sector if required. Our ds transferred out at 8; dd went to a sought after comp at 11 but it didn't work out (behaviour and ethos issues) so independent from 13. Should have done it from 11. We had to compromise over quality of independent at 13. But she was very happy there and got good enough results at GCSE to go to a top independent for 6th form.

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 16:46:34

(I would also say that, of course, the samples of work I might show you would not necessarily match random samples from a highly selective London private primary. But that's my point - the fact that Winchester is an extraordinarily good school - or has a very carefully-selected intake - doesn't make every private school extraordinarily good, nor does the fact that some state schools are very poor - or have very low attaining intakes - make every state school poor)

DeoGratias Thu 11-Feb-16 16:52:06

I am happy with my choices. Most people tend to stick with what they know so on balance she'd probably prefer private schools where she and I were educated rather than a different system where you don't pay and don't call the shots. We must not forget that the 8% of children at private schools get half the best university places and virtually lead the nation in just about every successful field of endeavour from sport, pop music to the Cabinet, Archbishop of Canterbury, London Mayor and a good few lawyers and doctors too. If you can afford to pay why not do so as you can gain so much advantage and also feel in a more comfortable in the environment too - I am not saying the things I value like Handel whilst drinking champagne on a lawn is not put on my state primaries but it is a little less likely.

teacherwith2kids Thu 11-Feb-16 16:55:01

Deo - you forget - my own education was probably pretty much identical to yours: top class private girls' boarding school, Oxbridge. But I know enough about education to judge that what is available in my local state schools is better than what is available in the private ones.

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