The hidden costs of private schooling

I’ve just had my second letter in about a month published in the New Statesman, a British left-of-centre political magazine, this time on the subject of private education,  which they ran an extensive feature on two weeks ago and which continues to dominate their letters page. Last week they published a review of a BBC4 programme, These Four Walls, which featured several families as they struggled to make ends meet. One of them was a mother and daughter (we did not learn who or where the father was), the daughter having dreamed of attending the local private grammar school in Leeds. She sat the entrance exam and was awarded a full bursary, but her mother still had to meet the cost of the school’s uniform and a special bus pass, which came to £2,000, which she did by selling family heirlooms and borrowing from a loan shark. Sadly, and predictably, she left after a short time, despite achieving full marks, because the school (or other pupils) “made her feel like an outsider”.

My letter noted that none of the respondents to the original feature touched on these hidden costs, which parents have to meet even when school fees are waived, and they printed that bit, but not the connection between that feature and a review printed in the same edition as the responses to it. The review does not even mention that Niamh in fact left the school; it merely says that “the story does not end entirely happily, Niamh having struggled to fit in at her smart new school”. State schools have been moving towards allowing generic uniform clothes which can be bought from most supermarkets (although schools in many more affluent areas, and particularly Catholic schools, have resisted this trend, particularly demanding bespoke blazers and skirts for girls, and academies have brought the expensive bespoke uniform back into fashion). Private schools have faced no such pressure and can make their uniforms as distinctive, expensive and as ridiculous as they like, although some (like Christ’s Hospital near Horsham) fund the uniforms themselves, at least for some pupils.

I know something about this because in 1989, I spent two days at a local “independent grammar school”, Winton House in Croydon, after the Catholic secondary school I had been sent to the year before (Thomas More in Purley) wimped out. The private school expelled me after two days after a scuffle with a prefect, and this is what led to me being sent to the infamous Kesgrave Hall. Years later, I suggested that the local special needs co-ordinator (or whatever he was called then) had arranged for me to be sent to that school so as to make sure I would be sent to that ‘special’ school, and my mother replied that this was impossible as there was no way the SENCO would have had them spend that much money on the uniform. I’m not sure if they got any of it back.

Private schools can do this because not only does private schooling (in some places, not everywhere) offer better learning conditions (e.g. smaller classes, less able pupils excluded), but because having a child at a private school is a status symbol. As bursaries are by definition meant for parents who cannot pay fees, requiring them then to pay through the nose for a uniform and a special bus pass is simply despicable, particularly if the school is not a welcoming environment to children from poorer backgrounds. I have previously heard of incidents of children being removed from private schools because of class-based bullying which the teachers refused to address because the bully had particularly rich parents, and this was when the parent had paid the fees, not received a bursary. These schools should be accountable for this sort of behaviour, including for the fees and costs of children who are unable to stay because of these things, and bursaries should meet the full costs, so as to provide a genuine public service, not just be seen to throw a few crumbs to the peasants to justify their charitable status.

I am not saying that private schooling should not be allowed, because it often provides services that state schools don’t, such as alternative models of education, but schools like The Grammar School at Leeds, the school the girl in These Four Walls went to, should not be allowed to pretend to be charities for the tax advantages while providing little in the way of meaningful voluntary services — a few supported pupils in a sea of wealthy fee-paying ones are always going to stand out somehow, unless they really are just “distressed gentlefolk” (i.e. formerly rich people fallen on hard times). The programme should really have investigated this aspect of why Niamh did not last more than a year at a school her mother had spent £2,000 she did not have for her daughter to achieve her dreams. If she and her mother were stabbed in the back, the school should be held accountable.

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