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Artillery Row

Are private schools worth it?

Parental background has a bigger impact than education

I was accused of hypocrisy on a TV panel last month while debating Labour’s marmite plan to lift the VAT exemption on private schools. 

I support this policy for various reasons. Firstly, Private schools are not a price-sensitive good. Their fees have been increasing yearly over and above inflation, and parents continue signing up. The only independent studies we know of show that there will be limited effects.

Secondly, private schools invest vast amounts of the money they make into luxurious, unnecessary facilities to show off on brochures and parent tours. They don’t go into bursaries like many claim. Just 7,097 students in private schools are on full scholarships. If private schools are worried about middle-class kids missing out, they don’t have to pass on VAT to parents. 

Besides, only 6-7 per cent of all students attend private schools; from those, the ones that will not be able to afford to continue going is about 10%, if we don’t account for potential help from other family members or savings. That is a tiny number of people. 

In what my Twitter trolls thought was a “mic drop” moment, the presenter asked me on air what kind of school I went to. I went to a private school. Why then do I want to make it harder for other middle-class kids to do the same? 

I understand this would be an embarrassing moment for a British politician because, in the UK, people underplay their background. Rishi Sunak was asked in a damaging interview what sort of things he had to go without as a child, and he floundered. He knew he was expected to come up with a sob story, of which he had none. Tales of childhood hardship are how controversial figures absolve themselves, but where I come from, we don’t pretend to be poorer than we are for clout; we pretend to be richer out of insecurity. 

In Greece, our culture demands that you pretend to be more comfortable with money than you are. If you want to blend in, you overdress and bring up signifiers of wealth unprompted (e.g. summer homes, business class tickets, etc). You always offer to pay, for lovers obviously, but also for friends. Most Greeks my age were raised with weekly scenes of our parents and friends having big dramatic fights over who would pick up the tab. 

Seeing as I live in London now, though, let me try to do a Rishi and construct my sob story. My parents describe their upbringing as safe but poor. My paternal grandparents were refugees from Turkey. My dad was raised in a neighborhood that used to be a dump. My mother was born in a tiny village on the island of Crete to a priest father and a seamstress mother. My father was ambitious; my mother was status-sensitive. They rode the wave of the emerging 80s Greek middle class and built their own businesses. They did well and sent me to a private school, not least to sabotage my career in the Labour party. And can I say… I loved my private school! It was and is one of the best in the country. I sat competitive exams to get in, and the fees continue to be eye-watering for the average Greek. By Greek standards, it is very impressive. It is massive and green with fancy facilities, labs, art rooms, three theatres, and more courts than I can count. It is also the only Greek school that offers boarding. 

I would not have the same career today had I not been to my school. I would not have sat the IB, where my academic fortunes did a U-turn, and I ended up studying Law in London. But also, were it not for the stupid number of extracurricular activities it offered, I might not have found out what I was good at. I was a dreadful student for most of it; I had ADHD, dyslexia and the romantic belief that life should be filled with beauty and joy, not homework. But I loved debating, speaking, and writing in English. 

Your parents’ educational, social, and financial background has the most significant impact on your life chances

Yet anecdotes are a weak form of evidenceEducation impact is notoriously hard to evaluate because many variables are hard to measure objectively, not least of all genetics. Your parents’ educational, social, and financial background has the most significant impact on your life chances, and beyond that, people who do well in one school are likely to have done well wherever, within reason. A lot of parental anxiety over private schools is a coping mechanism for how little control they have over their kid’s outcomes beyond conceiving, birthing and keeping them alive. Multiple studies show that children from wealthier families perform significantly better at all stages of the education system than their poorer peers. This is true even when comparing children within the same school. For your kids to do better they don’t just need a more expensive school, they also need richer and better educated parents! Even if my career trajectory had not been the same, I don’t think I would have failed spectacularly or reached new heights in any school with a reasonable educational standard. 

Not all private schools offer exceptional education. Some even manage to offer a rubbish one. So, why do parents who can barely afford it choose to send their kids to lesser private schools of dubious quality? It is because private school parents from a middle or lower-middle-class background are natural maximisers; they want to squeeze the most value out of their resources and in the UK, they see a society where private school seems to be in the resume of anybody who is anybody. This is why many education reformists have wanted these exact parents to come in contact with the state education sector because by making state education their business, they’d be motivated to change it with the same vigour. 

While these lesser private schools often don’t offer exceptional education, their value is their signifier as a higher-class consumer good. In my day job, I work for a charity that diverts young people from gangs. The kids get lured into dealing drugs and carrying knives because they see people in prison on Instagram wearing Gucci belts and other signifiers, and they want the same for themselves. As an adult, you see that and think that’s silly. Buying the kind of clothes a rich person wears will not make you rich. The harder pill to swallow is that sending your kid to the school a rich parent sends theirs will not make you a rich parent. 

If you don’t already have generational wealth, your kid will feel it sooner or later. The average fee for an independent school is £16,650. If the schools pass on the VAT increase, that will mean an extra £2,500 a year. If that is too much for your family, then you are better off not sending your kid to a substandard private school. You can’t protect them from graduating into the real world, where their background still matters more than anything they have done through adolescence. Halfway through my time in high school, the financial crisis hit Greece. My dad’s business got a beating, but my parents couldn’t fathom letting me and my brother feel the brunt. Looking back, I wish my dad had not destroyed his health to make sure we could keep up with my wealthy classmates. I wish he had given up. He declared bankruptcy two years ago because they found a tumour in his brain, and the surgery to remove it left him disabled. I wish he had done it a decade earlier. I wish he had pulled me out of my precious private school and let me fend for myself with my local state-school hooligans. I would probably not have found my way to London, and the good people of Britain would not have to decipher my accent on their airwaves and put up with my violent hand gestures on their screens. But I would have been okay (girls with dads like mine usually are). 

On the TV set, once my private school background was revealed, another commentator who had never addressed me in person said loudly enough for me to hear that only childless people fail to understand the plight of the parents who want to give their kids the best. Perhaps I have never been a parent trying to do the best for their kid, but not long ago, I was a kid with parents trying to do the best for me. I wish I could save my dad from the stress and humiliation of men who have been raised to measure their value as humans on the material goods they can buy for their families. I am not denying that material security is essential, and a network of kids with wealthy parents is helpful for most careers. But please, don’t take a second job to pay for private school. If you want what’s best for your kids, take care of your health, spend more time with them, and vote for politicians who want what’s best for everyone’s kids, not just those who can afford to pay their way. Would my life have been so bad if my career was different and my parents a bit less stressed? I could have managed that. Your kid will, too. 

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