Which side of the fence are you on?

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Nicholas Hillman looks at the pros and cons of working in independent and state schools

State or independent? The choice for new teachers is no longer clear-cut.

Maintained schools are said to be more vibrant. They add more value and reflect the real world better.

Private schools, meanwhile, offer higher salaries, are more academic and have fewer discipline problems. But does the reality bear any relation to the caricatures?

Some private schools are more generous, but others are meaner. Higher salaries are normal in the wealthiest private schools and the extra pay also leads to higher pensions. Staff may be offered discounted school fees for their children and even cheap private healthcare. Accommodation is sometimes available. As a teacher at St Paul's School in London, one of my perks was a shared flat in Covent Garden, for which I paid pound;20 a week.

The pay and benefits package at a top private school can be worth more than double what is on offer at a state school, especially for teachers with school-age children benefitting from reduced school fees. But what is true of the most prestigious private schools is not true of all. Some schools pay less than the national teachers' pay scale.

It is generally believed private schools are - on average - more academically successful. Although they educate 7 per cent of pupils (and around 25 per cent in Years 12 and 13), they provide half of all Oxbridge entrants.

But these figures are skewed by a minority of private schools which send a high proportion of pupils to Oxford and Cambridge.

Many private schools are less academic than the average state school and a large number find it a huge challenge to fill places - they select only by the ability to pay. New teachers are sometimes attracted by the academic freedoms that private schools offer. To a certain extent, private schools can ignore the standard curriculum.

When I started teaching history at St Paul's in 1995, my department did not own an updated copy of the national curriculum for the subject. Such freedom can be liberating and allows teachers to work to their strengths, but the flip side tends to be less support and more work - shared resources are unheard of in many private schools. Moreover, because private school pupils take the same public exams, their teachers are not, in practice, free to teach whatever they like.

The caricature of independent schools implies their pupils are better behaved. It is true that the most academically successful face few systematic classroom management problems, but this is hardly surprising given that they tend to have a much more flexible expulsion policy. On the other hand, the more successful state schools also tend to avoid serious discipline problems and less successful private schools cannot afford to expel their disruptive pupils.

Many private schools provide little room for professional development. Some teachers have not been formally trained as this is not a legal requirement.

Moreover, local authority training courses are not generally applicable to private schools.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the level of extra-curricular demands. Most private schools have longer school days and some have lessons on Saturday mornings. The extra hours are filled with societies and clubs and a range of drama, sporting and musical activities.

When I taught at St Paul's, four out of five lunchbreaks each week were taken up by extra-curricular societies. In addition, pastoral care can be a 24-hour-a-day job in boarding schools. It is not uncommon for independent schools to reject the best-skilled applicant for a specific post because they have less to offer in the extra-curricular supervision.

In a state school, extra-curricular responsibilities tend to be narrower, although this does not mean less work because there tends to be longer terms, more paperwork and larger classes.

There are some clear downsides to the variety and opportunities which independent schools appear to offer. Most importantly, teachers in private schools are not protected by the workload agreement, which limits the duties of teachers in the state sector. In 2004, a poll among independent school teachers who are members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that 64 per cent "were expected to perform tasks they felt should not have to be carried out by a teacher". In the same poll, 85 per cent said "excessive workloads were having a detrimental impact on their home life".

A year later, another ATL poll found that almost nine out of 10 private school teachers had seen "no improvement in their work-life balance since 2004" and that more than six out of 10 regularly worked more than 50 hours a week.

So state versus independent is not a simple question. People who are happy to work in either should dismiss the stereotypes and note the pros and cons of each school

Nicholas Hillman taught history at St Paul's School, London, and is a research fellow of the Policy Exchange think tank

THE BALANCE SHEET

Teachers in independent schools: 58,830 (50,894 full time equivalent)

* Teachers in state schools: 435,600 (England)

* Teacher-pupil ratio in independent schools: 1:9.87

* Teacher-pupil ratio in state schools: 1:17.2

* Pay scales for qualified teachers in state schools outside London: Pounds 19,641-pound;35,874

* The five independent school heads' associations require schools to match pay in the state sector, at least to M6 (pound;28,707)

* In 2006, 1,870 teachers moved from the state sector to independent schools, 608 teachers moved from independent schools to the state sector

Sources: Independent Schools CouncilDfESATL

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