When a state school teacher sends their children to private school, colleagues can be quick to judge. Nick Morrison speaks to parents who have crossed the divide
What would you think if you discovered your GP had chosen private healthcare? Would you curse them for a lack of faith in the NHS, or commend them for not sacrificing their health to their principles?
Teachers potentially lay themselves open to similar criticism when choosing a school for their own children. As practitioners in the state sector, they are expected to defend its ability to deliver a good education; as parents, they want the best for their children and may have concerns over whether state schools are the right fit.
It's often a charged debate, arousing passions on both sides. Such are the sensitivities, some teachers are reluctant to disclose their choice of education to their colleagues. John Bell has no hesitation in rejecting the charge of hypocrisy. John, key stage 2 leader and acting deputy head at a primary school in Norfolk, sends his daughter to an independent school. Jessica, five, started at Norwich High School for Girls, where the fees are pound;6,000 a year, in September 2006.
John, 41, believes teachers are entitled to distinguish between their professional duties and their responsibilities as a parent. "People say to me: 'How can you teach in a state school if it is not good enough for your own child?', but what I choose to do for a job shouldn't come into it," he says.
"Nobody has to bring their child to the school I work in; they go to the school they think is best, whether they have to pay for it or not. I know some people find it difficult, but I'm not going to give my daughter a poorer quality of life if I can help it."
The financial commitment is substantial. John says they are resigned to keeping the same Ford Fiesta for the next four years. He also admits to some professional anxiety over Jessica's education. "I think I'm a good teacher, but I wondered whether I was good enough for my daughter." What makes John's faith in private education particularly surprising is that at the age of 19 he was a member of Militant Tendency, the extreme left-wing group that vied for control of the Labour Party in the 1980s. Now he is firmly behind parental choice.
Issues familiar to many state school teachers, of low-level disruption and a too-rigid curriculum, coupled with the perceived advantages of the fee-paying sector, led John to choose private.
The fact that Norwich High is an all girls' school was important, as were the smaller class sizes. After-school activities are another draw. "She goes to French club and knitting club, there's a computer club and sports clubs, swimming and karate. She wouldn't get that in a state school," John says. "She has developed and become more confident and can sit and read Harry Potter books. I can't prove that wouldn't have happened in the state sector, but I doubt it."
Andrea Caish never had any doubt that her two daughters would go to an independent school, even though she was a teacher and then a head in a state primary in south Gloucestershire.
From the age of eight, Victoria and Alex went to Clifton High in Bristol, where fees are pound;2,185 a term for the junior school and pound;2,935 in the upper school. It was the same school Andrea, now 62 and retired for two years, had attended as a girl.
"We weren't happy with the large classes in state schools. There were 32 or 35 in a class and we felt they were drowning," she says. "One year the school had a mixed class, and as Victoria and Alex are only 18 months apart they were both in the same class, which we didn't like too much.
"You are reduced to the level of the lowest in the class and if a child doesn't behave then everybody suffers."
By contrast, Clifton High could offer class sizes of around 15-18, a tutor system to closely monitor each pupil's progress, and regular liaison with parents.
She says the girls, now 32 and 30, flourished at Clifton High, getting three As at A-level and their Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, as well as taking part in extra curricular music and art.
She doesn't recall any criticism from colleagues, even before she became a head, but had no anxiety about going private. "I was fortunate in my education and I wanted to give what I could to the state system."
But not all teachers find the decision so straightforward. Choosing private education went against Sam's principles, but he felt he had no option.
Moving to Kent after a stint abroad, Sam, who asked for his real name to be withheld, found the only primary school with places for his daughter was in special measures. So he and wife Sarah, also a teacher, opted for a private prep school, at pound;1,600 a term.
"It went against my politics and it was something I wouldn't have dreamt of considering a year or two earlier, but you have to be realistic. They're your kids and you want the best for them, so you compromise your principles," he says.
Sam taught at a local comprehensive school and says he never had any adverse reactions from colleagues. He puts this partly down to Kent retaining the 11-plus, making prep schools an acceptable option for parents who want their children to go to a grammar school.
Twelve pupils in a class, regular and relevant homework and a culture of learning has made Sam something of a convert to private education, albeit with reservations. "We got our money's worth in terms of the progress my daughter made, but things such as art and PE were left by the wayside and in terms of a broader education, a state school might have been better."
His daughter went to prep school from Years 1 to 4, but in September the couple moved back to teach in the Middle East, where an international private school is the only option.
While Sam overcame his qualms about private education, others face anxieties that endure for years. Sylvia spoke to The TES Magazine on the condition that her real name wasn't used and some details were withheld. The primary school teacher is still concerned about the reaction from colleagues, even though her son left school more than a decade ago.
She switched her son, the youngest of three, to an independent school in Year 9 after he was bullied at his state secondary. "My principles had always been to support the state system, but when your own child is involved and they're unhappy at school, you have to do something about it. Your principles go out of the window," says Sylvia, who works in South Yorkshire.
Her son won a scholarship, which made the fees affordable, although at pound;2,000 a term they were still a stretch. But it was still with a great deal of trepidation that she confided in colleagues.
"I didn't tell anyone at work for a long, long time, because I knew it would be frowned upon. Some friends who were teachers were really angry with me. In the end I just said he was my child and he was unhappy at school."
Her son thrived in classes of no more than 16, with six in some A-level groups, compared with 30-plus pupils in his state school. Fewer behavioural problems meant he was less likely to come home saying he hadn't learned anything because the teacher could not keep control. He was no longer bullied.
Sylvia believes the state system, can be as good as the private sector, but she has no regrets about paying for her son's education. "He says it was the best thing I ever did for him," she says
What's good enough for you...
There are no authoritative figures for the number of state school teachers who educate their children privately, although a TES survey of 700 teachers in 2005 found that one in four would send their children to private schools if they could afford it.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, has criticised state school teachers who go private for sending the wrong message to parents.
She told the Labour Party conference in 2004: "If you work in the state system you have to send your child there, otherwise the message it sends to parents is, 'It's good enough for your child, but it's not good enough for mine'."
In the US, analysis of the 2000 Census has shown that public school teachers are more likely to send their children to private schools than the rest of the population. The research showed 21.5 per cent of urban public school teachers sent their children private, compared with 17.5 per cent among urban families in general.
Rise of the private sector
Pupils in independent and private schools
England 577,670 (2007)
Scotland 30,321 (2005)
Wales 9,452 (2006)
Northern Ireland 3,210 (2007)
Percentage of pupils in independent and private schools
Northern Ireland 0.97
Change in percentage of pupils in independent and private schools,
England + 1.7%
Scotland + 4% (2001-05)
Wales + 1.5% (2003-06)
Northern Ireland - (minus) 5.83%
Sources: Department for Children, Schools and Families; Scottish Government; Welsh Assembly Government; Northern Ireland Executive
Average teacher salary in England:
Average cost of a day place at an independent or private school: pound;8,655 (2007)
Sources: Department for Children, Schools and Families; Independent Schools Council.