Independent schools: Worth shopping at Lidl for?

During her speech at last week’s Girls’ School Association conference, GSA president Louise Robinson criticised the government’s policy of encouraging independent schools to sponsor academies.  To her it was “beyond the pale” that those middle-class parents struggling to pay ever-increasing fees should have to witness “[her] school offer its expertise and experience to parents who could have sent their children to [her] school, but chose not to”. I find her choice of words fascinating. Isn’t it odd to view specific educational benefits as USPs sold to parents rather than ways to enrich children’s lives?  Nowhere are learners – neither Robinson’s own charges nor those in the hands of what she describes as “the local competition” – so much as mentioned. Whatever happened to at least pretending to care about the greater good? Isn’t that also a USP, and one which has served the private sector well? And yes, Robinson didn’t just come right out and say “we’re a business, not a charity”, but that’s what it sounds like.

Reporting on the speech, the Telegraph appears to be supportive of Robinson’s position. After all, these are “hard-up families” seeing their money diverted back into the state sector – aren’t they? It’s an interesting suggestion, and one which has gained ground in recent times, as independent schools grow more panicky about the effects of an economic downturn and more resentful of the pressure to justify their existence in a supposedly meritocratic society. Another article (from the Telegraph, of course) from 2009 offers the following confession:

We’re prepared to forgo holidays and new clothes and do the grocery shopping at Lidl, but our son’s education is non-negotiable, and we will do whatever it takes to keep him on at school.

As one who shops at Lidl – and Asda, which I find just as reasonable and more varied if one does not want to live on Lebkuchen alone – I have to say, I don’t find this amasses enough of a saving to fund £4,500 a term school fees. Perhaps I’m still buying too much hot dog pizza? Should I switch from Rory the Racing Car tinned spaghetti to plain old hoops? Just what is the secret to these magic belt-tightening tactics which, to the rest of us, might just seem like perfectly normal life?

If I’m honest, I don’t seriously believe that the 7% who pay for private education are, in terms of income, representative of the 93% who don’t. Does anyone? Of course, it’s all relative, but I suspect there are also people for whom paying independent school fees is not an enormous sacrifice. These will be rich people. They still exist. Denying their existence – and pretending that all independent school fees are paid by noble, struggling People Like Us – seems to me a rather dishonest, exploitative tactic used in an effort to make a two-tier education system appear virtuous. Moreover, it’s a tactic that can’t possibly work, since the only people it convinces are the ones who’ve already bought into the system. It might make them feel better but it won’t persuade anyone else.

Nevertheless, I am prepared to accept that there are people for whom funding their child’s private education is a struggle. Then why are they doing it? Why have they allowed themselves to lose faith in the state system so much? And why can’t they see an alternative? I’ll admit, I panic, too. I feel guilty about not having the private school option and about not living in the “right” catchment area, despite the fact that I like my son’s school and I like the schools I attended, too. But recently I’ve started thinking – if I did have more money – if I could save that extra £4,500 – what would be the best way to use it on educating my child? And I’m not so sure bankrupting myself, either by paying for school fees or moving house, is necessarily the best answer.

Are there families on good incomes who are nevertheless living miserable, frugal lives just to purchase those private school “USPs”? Here’s an alternative – if you are earning enough to pay private school fees, why not work less? Pick your child up straight after school, spend more time helping them with homework, or take them to clubs. Don’t sell the car – use it to take your child to interesting places. Don’t forego holidays – help your child to see the world and learn from it. Having money can benefit your child’s education immensely, but does it have to be a sacrifice? Does all education take place in the classroom? If you are a parent who is actually there for your child – and simply being there does cost money, in terms of the income you thereby give up by not working all hours – surely that can bring so much more. If you yourself are “educated” and feel bad at the thought of your child not having the same opportunities, why not use that education in a far more direct way?

I realise this isn’t a solution to inequality. Even so, it crosses my mind that if you have a bit of money and really care about education, there are ways to share learning with your children and encourage them to become creative and inquisitive without bringing deprivation on the rest of the household. Clearly you’d miss out on other things an independent education offers – networking, specific qualification sets, exposure to certain disciplines, for instance. Perhaps if you spend the summer travelling rather than in an Oxbridge interview crammer you’ve got less chance of getting into Oxbridge. But if everything has become such a fierce competition anyhow, unless you’re super-rich already you’re unlikely to see the real benefits of mixing with the upper-classes. Your child might get a marginally better paid job, which will cease to be worth the effort once the difference is ploughed back into his or her child’s private school fees. What is more important – martyrdom for the sake of a few more A*s or a broad education and enthusiasm for learning that’s with you for the rest of your life? Many state schools offer this already, and many parents can add to it, too. Such parents could even share it with other children, those whose parents don’t have the same opportunities. Rather than seeing parents as consumers, why not recognise their value as resources? Perhaps it’s time to stop encouraging them to part with their cash while we take time to reconsider what’s really worth learning.