Why I moved my son from a prep school to a state primary

7 October 2009
The Times and The Sunday Times
link to original

As a private schools tsar extols their virtue, one teacher tells how he transferred his son from a public prep school to a state primary

It seemed so perfect at first. Every parent at our son’s nursery was desperate to get their child into the exclusive prep school. On the open day the school was gleaming, brimming with opportunities for our child to learn foreign and classical languages, musical instruments and attain a really top-class academic education. Since the only good local primary school in our area appeared to be full, my wife and I decided to accept the offer of a place for our four-year-old son and delve deep into our pockets and pay £12,000 a year to give him the best education money could buy.

His first few years at the school appeared to go well. He learnt to read and write, enjoyed painting — he won an art prize. His friends were scattered all over the city and he was invited to birthday parties held at Premier League football grounds and million-pound homes. He would sing at religious services and was learning musical instruments.

But when he was 8 and in Year 4, we began to notice that things were going wrong. He didn’t seem to be enjoying his lessons, complaining that he felt tired and bored in a lot of them. Furthermore, it was clear that his work was suffering: his writing was very scruffy and brief. His teacher complained to us that he was not concentrating and that his handwriting was poor because he was not copying out diligently, his writing lacked detail because he took so long to settle down to the work.

He was also being bullied. A boy in his class was constantly calling him names, telling him that he was rubbish at everything and pushing his head into the bin whenever he got the chance. When I took this up with the school, it said that it would speak to the boy concerned. But the boy’s behaviour continued. It became clear that there was an atmosphere at the school that was reminiscent of the public school spirit of the 1950s: “Boys will be boys and we shouldn’t ruin their fun!” This meant that hard balls and bats weren’t banned from the small playground. As a consequence, my son and his friends rarely ventured outside, preferring to hang around the corridors.

He was suffering from the mountains of homework that was taking more than an hour a night, and frequently required two hours’ attention. To make matters worse, he didn’t seem to understand much of it. It was complex work, but unfortunately he didn’t seem to have a grasp of the basics. For example, he didn’t have a clue what odd and even numbers were, didn’t know his times tables, had scarcely an idea what division was, but was expected to add fractions and do long division.

When I questioned him about this, he told me that most of his lessons consisted of completing worksheets in silence. He was frightened to ask anything because he would seem stupid in front of the rest of the class and the teacher was often impatient with pupils who asked questions.

I began to complain, talking to his teacher, the deputy head, the pastoral head and the headmaster about my concerns. They were very attentive and listened to what I said, promising action, which indeed they attempted to take. However, it became clear to me that complaining wasn’t going to solve the situation because there was a more difficult problem at the root of things. The teachers at the school weren’t trained properly. They didn’t know how to motivate and engage children such as my son. They thought that lecturing eight-year-olds, dishing out worksheets, insisting that rote-learning of spellings and times tables was the way to educate our young.

I was also concerned that the coming years would be full of mock tests to prepare him for the entrance exams to the exclusive public schools.

While researching my book, Working The System, a guide to state schools, I learnt that pupils from middle-class backgrounds did just as well at inner-city comprehensives as they did at the so-called top private schools. In fact, researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Sunderland and West of England have found that middle-class pupils often thrive academically at inner-city schools because of the extra attention they receive from teachers keen to improve the school’s results.

We looked at our local primary schools again and saw clearly that the teachers had been properly trained to motivate and engage young children. What is more, contrary to the stereotype, much of the work at the inner-city primary we chose for Theo was of a higher standard than at the prep school — the girls at the school, in particular, seemed to be steaming ahead.

Because Theo was so unhappy, we decided to take the plunge and pull him out of the prep school in the middle of the year. For the first few weeks at the new school he was treated like a celebrity, gawped at by everyone, with parents offering me coffee and biscuits. That attention died away after a while but the positive atmosphere didn’t. For the first time ever, Theo was saying that he liked maths and science. He was doing real experiments in science, going on trips to places such as St Albans to see the Roman remains and theatres to experience concerts, joining football and basketball clubs to improve his ball skills, which needed brushing up after years of sitting indoors during break times.

At the end of the year, there were a number of parent-teacher consultations, far more than the ones at the private school. What is more, they weren’t infused by a general atmosphere of “you need to make sure your child shapes up”, but characterised by a sense that all of us — parent, teacher, child — were in this together, that we all needed to figure out the best ways forward. It was clear from the meetings that Theo was doing pretty well with his reading and was enjoying his work, but that he needed much more writing practice. I had been informed by the parents at his previous school that he would be far ahead of the rest of the children. But this wasn’t the case at all; I could see that many of the children in his class, having been encouraged and nurtured from early on, were more fluent and confident in their writing than he was. I met his teacher and we chatted about what Theo needed to do to improve academically. We all agreed that Theo would write a diary at home to improve his writing skills.

In other spheres Theo has flourished. The Government has made a concerted effort to engage children with music. This has meant that in our borough Theo is able to attend a Saturday music school where he learns clarinet and bassoon, as well as having percussion and singing lessons.

Above all, Theo is now part of our local community. He walks down the street and children and adults say hello to him. He plays with local children after school instead of doing hours of meaningless, pointless homework. He is much more confident and happier. He has his childhood back.

Common myths about state schools

Myth 1 State schools hate competition — and competitive sports

In every state school I’ve taught in there has been a healthy dose of competition, particularly where sports are concerned. The vast majority of schools play the competitive games that we all know and love: such as football, netball and rugby.

You’ll also find plenty of academic competition going on. All the best state schools report back regularly on the national curriculum levels and GCSE grades your child is attaining. In all of the schools that I’ve taught in I’ve noticed that children are forever comparing themselves with each other, wanting to better each other. Believe me, it’s a competitive atmosphere. At a good state school though, pupils should know what they are good at and what they need to improve.

Myth 2 You find better teachers in the private sector

As we have seen, this is patently untrue. Some of the best teaching you’ll find is actually going on in our inner cities. Well-trained, impassioned teachers are enthusing children in a way that very few teachers in the private sector do.

Myth 3 Behaviour is very poor in state schools

The best state schools are orderly, well-behaved places. Fights are infrequent and pupils are keen to learn. In a recent survey, Ofsted judged that behaviour was good or better in eight out of ten lessons. Usually bad behaviour occurred in classes where the teacher was temporary or in schools where there had been a high staff turnover. This said, it is likely that your child will come across pupils from disturbed homes who have emotional and behavioural issues. Talking this through with your child and explaining the reasons why children sometimes behave this way is very helpful.


  1. Francis, all this really needs saying over and over again until the British get the message Private schools are a con and a drain on our system. Every year teachers from our children’s excellent comprehensives are lost to private schools yet these schools do nothing to train teachers. Contrary to their propaganda they do nothing for the education system as a whole. Can we please stop calling private schools “public” schools? Public schools are the sort you and I send our children to which do not select pupils on the basis of parental wealth.
    Sarah Johnson (other half of Dan)
    Best wishes to Erica

  2. We have tried both and 15 years ago had to pull our daughter out of a horror of a highly recommended primary (after starting in a good one) to join what was then a new and excellent day prep and pre prep. Primaries has changed enormously since those days, and we are reasonably happy with our eight year old’s progress, and all the sport. The main benefit is the terrific sense of being part of a local community of children to play with. This makes so much difference to his life. Our older son was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and finding holiday playdates was always difficult. However, children in large numbers are still entering secondary school unable to read – which shows provision is still very uneven.

    from Josa Young
  3. For someone who makes a living telling parents how to choose the right school for their child, this should be somewhat embarrasing for you. Although this is not the attitude that comes across in this article.

    You broke the first rule of choosing a school – send your child to a school that actually suits him/her. Don’t allow the ‘gleaming’ image and promise of a ‘really top-class academic education’ to seduce you. Well done for taking action and moving your son from a school clearly unsuitable for him, but don’t be too quick to condem the prep you moved him from. It’s probably providing a good education for many of the children who attend it. I’m also sure that if you ask around you’ll find that the lovely primary your son now attends is failing a fair number of kids.

    from Amanda Brady
  4. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate what you’re saying, but I have to say I don’t feel that embarrassed because school are always going to be a process of working out problems as they arise…

    I think that after Year 3, prep schools are very much trying to produce a product for senior private schools.


  5. We’re just about to do the opposite to you – take our daughter out of the allegedly outstanding state primary just around the corner from our house and send her to a private primary.

    Why? because she’s bored at her school where there’s no real provision for very bright children as the emphasis is on getting the strugglers up to scratch; because a lot of lesson time is wasted while they’re waiting for X to get down off the table he’s climbed on; because there are 30 children in the class so there’s very little/no individual attention; because there’s very little sport and what there is is resolutely non-competitive; because there’s no drama until Y6 (she’s in Y2) and even then the show consists of children miming along to backing tapes rather than singing themselves.

    I have gone through agonies of indecision about this, but have come to the conclusion that the primary school which suited both her brothers is clearly failing her. It is just not true that every state primary is better than every private primary.

    PS as an English teacher, you really should be able to spell ‘licensed’ (one of your other article headlines)….

    from Sophie
  6. Hi i’m at college at the minute studying your piece on ‘why I moved my son from a prep school to a state primary’. I was wondering if you would be able to tell me your views on your piece and your thoughts and differences of prep and state schools. It would be a great help and would really appreciate it.

    from Abby
  7. Just interested, was the prep school boys only? Good article, I could sympathis with some points.

    from Mily
  8. Sorry, sympathise – typing on phone.

    from Mily
  9. I don’t know whether this proves much either way in the state/private debate. There are some hopeless private schools and some rubbish state ones. Equally there are shining stars in both systems. I went to a state comprehensive where I was one of only two pupils to go to university. My daughters attended a really lovely private prep school – smart uniform (think Madeline, with straw hats and blazers), friendly, supportive atmosphere, and quaint customs (the older girls, called ‘dinner mothers,’ serve up lunch for the younger ones; they have a school birthday song rather than ‘happy birthday’). My youngest daughter ended up as Head Girl. Now they both attend a selective private senior school, where the eldest, now in the Lower Sixth, is being coached for her Oxford application – they give her mock interviews every week. I’ve been thoroughly pleased with both schools.

  10. Francis, as a member of the bourgeois yourself (sorry for such reference), but you benefit from hatching your children in catchment areas. The primary school you talked about may well be a state school but it would have been a fantastic one for you to choose it.
    Most people in this country have no idea about choosing schools for their children,

    I guess you prove the point that middle-class children do (BETTER or at least) the same in state or private system.

    It would be interesting to see what you do about secondary school?

    from Haroon
  11. The primary school I refer to is in an area of high social deprivation, with over half the children on Free School Meals. I am sending my son to the local comprehensive, next door to us, which has had difficulties in the past but is really improving. I do now how “to work the system” but have come to realise that the best form of “working the system” is to have my child at the local school, and to work with the school if there are problems. Being near to a school can have a lot of advantages: communication between the school is much easier and added to which you know parents in the area as well.

    from francisgilbert
  12. Good article. I took my daughter and son out of their state primary, when I moved 60 miles away with husband work – we took them to a very small independent school – they worked from PACES/workbooks, the teachers were strict and there was always loads of homework and projects to do after school! My daughter was very unhappy and is much happier now she is at college. I took my son out, mid year, as the headmaster thought he was a wicked boy (but in fact he is a very nice, well behaved son!) and took him to a different independent school where he was liked (also by the headmaster, who saw his real character). Difficulty has come with costs and travel. My son has lots of friends in the local, good comprehensive and I am debating if he should finish off school (two years left from Sept.) there. Pros and Cons to both. But I agree, Private isn’t always best.

  13. […] Maths in a way that he never was when he went a private school. A few years ago, disappointed with the progress he was making at the private school he was attending, my wife and I pulled him out and put him in the local primary school. He was tested when he […]

  14. You are completely correct about private school teachers and their lack of qualifications.

    They do not need a PGCE or any other pedagogical qualifications. Often for many private schools the best qualification for being a teacher is that you attended the establishment as a student.

    I am sure Eton would rather give a job to an old Etonian than to someone who has educational qualifications and experience.

    That is not to say that some private schools are excellent, but it does also mean some can be atrocious.

    from Marc Edmonds
  15. Having just moved out of a London Borough with high levels of deprivation, I recognise your disingenuity on your claims. My area has large council estates, yet also has pockets of very expensive, Victorian and Georgian properties. These are middle-class enclaves within the catchment of good primary schools. This segregation allows the left-leaning, urban dwelling middle-class to send their children to State schools, and claim moral superiority at dinner parties, whilst simultaneously avoiding the poorer and multi-ethnic local schools. This whole con and hypocrisy is made worse by the fact that the ancestors of many of the kids living in the deprived estates once lived in those attractive period homes. I cannot afford to buy a property to live in such middle-class enclaves, so I am forced to abandon my heritage and surroundings and move out of London to ensure a better future for my children.

    from Dennis
  16. Francis,
    Interesting article.
    I am sorry to read that your son struggled at the private school you chose for him and delighted to see that he thrived when you moved him across to the state sector.
    However, the only conclusion you can safely draw from this is that the particular school that you sent him to was not appropriate for him, while the state school was. To attempt to draw a broad conlusion and apply it to the private and state sector in general is logically fragile and disingenuous.
    My own experience of this was that my brother and I both attended the same private boarading school from the age of seven (my father was in the RAF). I loved it, and thrived. It was the right school for me. My brother hated it, and din’t thrive. It was the wrong school for him. To suggest on that basis that the school was in some way ‘bad’ or, worse, that the whole private prep sector is ‘bad’, would be absurd.
    With best wishes,
    William Wright

    PS how did you allow your son to get to the age of 8 and not know about odd or even numbers or know his times tables?

    from William Wright
  17. I’m afraid I have a hard time believing your story. I suspect your political views have had a Johann Hari moment and decided just to make up the narrative to fit your personal bias.

    Interestingly I just viewed your performance on BBC News 24, as shown here:
    It does seem that when you are challenged you resort to hysterical abuse. I suspect that clip tells us far more about you and your story than the fabrication you have documented above

    from James
  18. You’re entitled to your opinion.

    from francisgilbert

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