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Making the leap as a ‘first time buyer’

The phrase ‘first time buyer’ usually brings to mind taking the first steps on the property ladder and the leap into home ownership. Buying your first home is an exciting if, often, all-consuming experience. No matter how well prepared you are, it is unfamiliar territory and requires a great degree of self-assurance to take the first step into the unknown.

The same can frequently be said for those parents who come to us as ‘first time buyers’: choosing to invest in independent schooling for the very first time having not experienced it for themselves or had any family members attend private school before.

In a Populus survey conducted in 2012, 57% of parents stated they would choose independent education for their children if they could afford it (and just 25% said they would not). However, currently only 7% of young people attend an independent school, and of this, only a fraction are children of first time buyers. Given the greater degree of social mobility which the UK has experienced in recent years and the fact that social mobility seems to drive so many of the decisions of recent governments, it is surprising how few first time buyers there are in independent education. I have often wondered why this is the case.

My own experience would lead me to believe that there are many state-educated parents out there who can afford independent education for their sons and daughters but don’t currently access it. What’s more, those who can’t afford it, don’t often realise that there are still options. Independent schools invest £384m annually in means-tested bursaries. This is to allow children whose parents couldn’t afford private schooling to access it and to thrive as a result. And thrive they certainly do. One stunning statistic which I recently learned illustrates just how they thrive quite nicely: 30% of Oxford undergraduate students who qualify for full bursaries because their parents earn less than £16,000 per year have been independently educated. Independent schools are clearly trying to do their bit for social mobility.

I imagine one of the reasons why some state-educated parents don’t consider independent schools is that they take the view that if the state system was good enough for them, then it should be for their children. I suspect this view is often based narrowly on how a school delivers academic success – examination results, that is. However, it is all too easy to not spot the other differences which can exist between state and independent. Independent schools generally have a better pupil-teacher ratio than their state counterparts and the result of this is the time and human resources to provide a holistic approach to education, to focus attention on building character. This is not just the ‘icing on the cake’ – it is an essential part of a good education. It can be achieved through music, sport, creative and performing arts, leadership, community service, et cetera, et cetera. It is no surprise that many parents observe that independent school pupils finish their education more confident in themselves.

At the same time, social mobility for those pupils who are educated in the state sector has unfortunately become more difficult. Grammar schools, for instance, have become the preserve of the middle classes. House prices near these schools are too expensive for many families. These families may not be paying for their children’s schools in fees, but they are paying in house prices which are on average inflated by £92,000. Writing in the Guardian in 2012, Janet Murray, who thought she would never send her daughter to private school, explained why she had changed her mind and pointed out, ‘By sending your child to private school, you are using the means you have – money – to get the right education for your child. But the state sector is full of parents buying advantage. They kid themselves that what they are doing is somehow morally superior. The truth is that every person who moves house to get into a catchment area is playing the system. So are those who pay private tutors, or consultants to help with school appeals (both booming businesses). Parents who suddenly discover a faith in God to get their children into a certain school are lying and cheating.’

And it is perhaps worth pointing out that these grammar schools are regularly outperformed by neighbouring independent schools, despite the fact that the grammar schools are far more academically selective.

Other first time buyers might worry there is a stuffiness to independent schools or that they would feel out of place – perhaps not welcome. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Independent schools are populated by pupils and parents who are focused on excellent education. The parents come from a diverse range of backgrounds – much more so than some state schools, as they tend to serve a wider community. In my experience pupils and parents integrate very well, and wealth and privilege rarely comes into this. I have first-hand experience of this, as a teacher with a child at an independent school. I have also seen many strong and lasting friendships between pupils from across diverse social divides in independent schools.

Reasonably regularly I meet parents who visit Truro High School assuming it will be a posh and rarefied environment. They come away with a very different view. They are impressed by the focus and determination our pupils show. They are impressed by the happy atmosphere and sense of fun. They understand that we want the best for their child, and not just in the classroom. It is amazing how frequently parents go from doubters to passionate believers in the space of 15 minutes.

Amongst these doubters I will occasionally meet a parent who has a philosophical issue with independent education. I can understand this to some extent – we want all schools to be excellent. However, when they ask me to argue for independent schools, I will point out that it is not about state versus independent, it is about the best school for their daughter. We are biologically programmed to want the best for our children and that’s why the percentage quoted earlier in this blog is so high.

Yes, independent education is expensive, but it is about priorities. Some of our parents forego family holidays, new cars, bigger houses, because they believe what we have to offer will give their daughter the best start in life. As I have said before, whether choosing state or independent education, selecting a school is a biggest single financial decision parents make on behalf of their child and I don’t think it’s importance should be underestimated. Many parents perhaps don’t even realise the independent option is available to them. It is, and it is worth considering.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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