A letter to my neighbour, whose children go to private school

Dear X,

Since you pulled your children out of our local primary in favour of a private prep school, I’ve observed their growing sense of entitlement. When they brag about their rugby tournaments and skiing holidays, I have to hide an involuntary curl of the lip. Your son carelessly dropped a sweet wrapper at my house the other day and I abruptly directed him towards the waste-paper bin: did he think it was my job to tidy up after him?

Your excuses are risible: ‘We just want the best for our children.’ Does that not include enabling them to mix happily with children from different backgrounds? ‘Miranda wasn’t being stretched.’ Education isn’t just about academic results. Even so, when my sons do well at school I feel a shameful urge to rub your upturned nose in it: see what the state sector can achieve!

What offends me most is that you’re brazenly trying to buy your children an advantage. I admit that state schools, through lack of funding, can’t compete with the private sector on all fronts. Small class sizes can make a big difference to children’s attainment, while professions such as law and politics are awash with the privately educated, not all of them conspicuously talented. Your chosen school, set in acres of grounds, seeks to bolster its charitable status by offering ours the use of its playing fields on sports day. For the rest of the year, we have to make do with a sloping tarmac yard and faded pitch markings.

You might argue that I, too, confer all sorts of advantages on my sons, simply by virtue of my class and educational background. It’s true: I have books on my shelves and the means to buy a house close to a decent state school. I can’t help being middle-class; what I can do is try not to pile on the privilege. Children spend a large part of their young lives at school and what happens there leaves a lasting imprint. If you surround them with the well-heeled on a daily basis, how can they fail to gain a distorted outlook?

Please don’t tell me about all those hard-working families who make enormous sacrifices to afford the fees. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that private school fees had risen at three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of a teacher or civil servant earning £25,000, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Bursaries vary widely, and the criteria for awarding them are often not made publicly available – so, once again, it’s the sharp-elbowed who benefit.

In the end, it comes down to one simple principle: education shouldn’t be for sale.




2 thoughts on “A letter to my neighbour, whose children go to private school

  1. EG

    I really don’t understand your point at all.

    You’re annoyed that she chooses to spend thousands on her children’s education? So given the choice, she should spend her money on…? What a terrible person.
    Or are you blaming her for cost of fees? I don’t think she sets those.
    Or would you like the state to offer private level education? You might see your taxes increase slightly.

    If I had the money I would want to give my children the best. I still might not choose private education based on the point you make about meeting children from different backgrounds, but that’s my choice.

    I would do anything for my child to help him better himself, assuming I thought it was in his interests and he would be happy. No amount of money can buy him a pass mark, he would still have to do the work himself. I would be buying him an opportunity.

    I, of course, don’t know your neighbour. Perhaps she’s an irritating, stuck up cow, but from your post you very much sound like the one with the up-turned nose, with your observing and abrupt directing. And no her son should not litter and you should tell him so, but there’s no need to project your stereotypes (assuming he expects people to clear up after him) on to him.

    I’m not trying to attack you, I just genuinely don’t understand (perhaps my state education is letting me down). On one hand you complain you have to ‘make do’ and on the other you want to rub it in her face that state schools can achieve so much.

    You’re cross with the wrong people. And no, it’s not fair, but you can’t stop the rich buying what others can’t afford in order to take away their advantage; that world wouldn’t work. Don’t waste your energy on resentment.

    1. bristolbetty Post author

      EG, thank you for taking the time to comment. In places it did sound like an attack but I pulled no punches in my post so you’re perfectly entitled to be critical.

      I made it clear that my reaction to my neighbour was ‘shameful’. I’m not proud of it. What I was trying to get across is that it’s a visceral response to the unfairness of a situation that sees some children receiving far greater opportunities than others, simply by virtue of their parents’ income. Of course, this is true in so many areas of life but education is one area where it seems particularly unjust.

      There’s no contradiction between saying, on the one hand, that state schools can achieve good results, and on the other, that they are hampered in some respects by a lack of funding. Given greater resources, I’m sure the good ones would do even better. I’d happily pay higher taxes to fund the state school system but I still wouldn’t want it to replicate private schooling.

      You seem to regard private education simply as a question of personal choice and doing what’s best for your child. I suspect we’re not going to agree here. I don’t think choices should be made in a vacuum, with no regard for their impact on those beyond one’s immediate family. I’m not alone in this: I know several people who have genuinely struggled with the decision to go private because of a sense of social responsibility and an unwillingness to exploit an unfair advantage. And their choices do have an impact. There’s evidence to suggest that state schools would benefit from a greater influx of children from educated, professional families – the very families that are more likely to choose the private route.

      I don’t suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the system but I do think change is possible, given the political will. There are various options that could go some way towards redressing the balance – removing private schools’ charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of (well-publicised) bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the number of successful private school applicants to the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the 7 per cent of pupils who attend private school. While none of these options is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.


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