Should I choose a private, state or grammar school?

The pros and cons of the different types of schools

Part One: State Schools and Academies

The vast majority of students in England are educated in state schools – either in Local Authority (LA) schools of academies. These schools have a number of important benefits:

  1. Free Education: The first obvious benefit of state schools is that they provide education free of charge (at point of use). On a personal level, this means, at the very least, you get taxation funded childcare during working hours for two-thirds of the year. On a societal level, state-funded education makes education accessible to all students regardless of their socioeconomic background. 
  1. Inclusivity and Diversity: State schools are generally diverse places, often reflecting the local community. This exposes students to different cultures, perspectives and experiences. This is especially true in cities and big towns. This diversity can also result in very skilled teachers – managing classes with a range of starting-points means state schools put a lot of emphasis on up-to-date pedagogical approaches and training.
  1. National Curriculum (or Equivalent) and Transparency: State schools follow the national curriculum. Academies have freedom to deviate from this, but have to demonstrate that what they do is as good as the national curriculum. This ensures that students receive a broad and balanced education. State schools are also required to publish their curriculum on their website and make all of their policies publically available.
  2. Accountability: As tax-payer funded institutions, state schools are held accountable for what they do. This means they need to follow all requirements set out by the government and (generally) employ qualified teachers. This ensures a certain level of quality and professionalism in the school. All exam outcome data is published as is other data about the school (which I will explore in later articles). State schools are inspected by Ofsted and the reports are made publicly available.

However, as with all schools (all things?!) there are a number of downsides to consider…

  1. Limited Autonomy: State schools often have less freedom compared to private schools. If the state school is an academy, they will have more scope to innovate, but this is quite limited and becoming increasingly difficult as more and more become part of huge academy chains. They will also be constrained by trying to please Ofsted and make sure they do well on league tables.
  1. Funding Constraints: State schools are paid for by the tax-payer. Since 2010 the amount of money available for schools has decreased. This can impact areas such as class sizes, facilities, extracurricular activities and access to specialised programs. In addition, poorly funded schools (and poorly paid teachers) result in less people training to teach – meaning many schools struggle to fill all of the teaching vacancies they need.
  1. Facilities: Linked to the above, state schools often have much poorer facilities than private schools. Although there was a big wave of new school buildings in the early 2000s, there has not been much updating since. State schools will also usually not have access to the best equipment – for example, sporting equipment, musical instruments, theatre props and new technologies. This is especially true compared to the more expensive private schools. 
  2. Class sizes: The main difference between state schools and private schools is class sizes. There is actually not a huge amount of evidence to suggest that small classes improve the quality of education, but as a parent, it definitely feels better that your child is one of fourteen compared to one of thirty three!

Local Authority Schools vs Academies

As I mentioned in my previous article, within the state school category, we also have two types of schools – LA schools and Academies. To summarise the main difference between the two, LA schools are funded by taxation via the local authority, whereas academies are funded directly. LA schools are overseen by the elected council while academies are run independently, or more commonly, by Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). Some points to note: 

  • Academies have slightly more autonomy. Academies have more control over how they spend their money, the curriculum and staffing. In theory this means they can be innovative and adaptable. In practice, the curriculum is still driven by Ofsted and exam boards and increasingly, large MATs are acting in the same way as local authorities – schools may find themselves having to follow the curriculum, pedagogical approach and financial policies set by the CEO of the MAT.
  • Partnerships. Some academies or MATs are sponsored by businesses or universities. This might give them access to additional sources of money or expertise.
  • Local Authorities are based in the community. LA schools are geographically linked, which means there is a sense that the schools are linked to the community. Big MATs may have schools all over the country, with a central team located in a city which could be physically and ideologically distant from your town.
  • There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that LA schools or Academies are better. In other words, it probably won’t make a huge amount of difference to your child’s academic performance either way. 

Most children in the UK (around 90%) are educated in state schools. If you choose to send your child to a state school, you are in the overwhelming majority of parents. Like with any decision or choice in education, there are always positive and negative side effects – the best thing you can do is to understand what these are and mitigate any worries you have with the experience you provide your child outside of school.