Choosing your child’s school is one of the worst parts of being a parent. Having just completed my son’s secondary school application, I’ve certainly felt how stressful it can be.
I’m sure many of you are anxiously awaiting the results of your choices right now too. You’ll have trawled Ofsted reports and attainment tables, had endless conversations with friends, or you might even have suddenly found God to get your kid into a faith school. All to land that coveted place you believe will equate to a life of endless happiness and success for your beloved.
You might also have prejudices about state schools. After all, record numbers of kids now go to private schools.
Indeed, before I moved here from Salisbury, I thought state schools in London meant unruly pupils, drugs and knives, with incapable teachers struggling to cope with too many kids with no interest in learning.
I’m lucky to have done well in my career, so thought I’d be stumping up to send my kids to private school, where they’d be safe and well-educated. However, when it came to my son, it wasn’t so straightforward. Having seen the sacrifices my sister made to educate her kids privately, I wanted to make sure it would be worth it.
So I obsessively researched all state and private school options and the education system as a whole. I looked into the data behind school performance and what factors may be influencing outcomes and what really determines a good school.
I watched talks by Ken Robinson on how little the education system has changed since the Industrial Age. I even got into the psychology behind the choices we make with Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.
I thought about my friends, ranging from those who went privately to those who went to rough estate schools.
Then I thought of my own personal experience.
I’m a first generation Egyptian immigrant and I arrived in Britain as a child not speaking a word of English. However, I made it into a highly selective grammar school. Which, by the way, did little for my future academic success - I left school at 16 and didn’t go to university, despite growing up in a family of academics. But whatever our educational background, my friends and I have all done pretty well for ourselves.
All of this combined to challenge my previously held beliefs. What became apparent is that school choice is a small factor in determining a child’s future success - academically or in life. Yet we’re obsessing about giving our kids an education that may be irrelevant to the future workplace they’ll be entering into anyway.
In our current age of tech, innovation and AI, what role does a school system designed for the Industrial Age have now? Unless of course you want to be a lawyer, doctor, teacher or scientist. Surely teaching our kids creativity, the value of diversity, a love for learning and being a decent human being are far more important than academic success by way of systemised exams and rote learning?
True diversity is something you rarely see in private schools. And it wouldn’t surprise me if fear of diversity is what drives some people towards the private system in the first place, with the percentage of pupils with English as a second language and the number of kids getting free school dinners cited by some middle class mums – based on my personal experience - as to why a school isn’t good enough. Which is a complete fallacy - it’s often kids of first generation immigrants who work hardest at school. They come from families and a wider culture where jobs in the likes of medicine and law are the aspirational professions of choice.
There are of course some children from socially deprived backgrounds who do struggle in the school system. The latest research shows that kids from the poorest households are two years behind when they sit their GSCEs and those on free school meals and receiving pupil premium are 27% less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C. But this is more to do with their circumstances of birth rather than the quality of the school – it’s because they’re less likely to have books at home, to have space to do homework or have parents who have the time to help them with it.
It stands to reason that a school where most kids are from affluent and highly educated backgrounds, where their parents can afford additional tutoring, and has an admissions policy that selects kids that are likely to perform well academically, will have higher academic results compared to a school where most kids come from less privileged backgrounds. But how much of that is down solely to the school itself?
When I chose my son’s secondary school, my decision was based on its inclusive culture, diverse curriculum that embraces creative and academic subjects equally and its strong community ethos. The kids are representative of the wonderful diversity we have in London and particularly a borough like Brent where we live. It also has a respectable level of academic achievement, which I’m sure comes from happy kids in an environment where they’re supported in a way that suits them - where everybody can thrive no matter what their background or abilities.
And that’s the kind of education money simply cannot buy.