Parents agonise over the kind of schools that they want to send their children to. One source of agony is whether parents should send their children to a private school or a public one. There is evidence that private schools are better resourced, have better student-teacher ratios, and provide superior post-school opportunities. However, a controversy in far off Scotland highlights the tensions that underpin private school education.
In Scotland, private schools are known as “independent schools” and have existed for centuries. The most famous of Sctoland’s independent schools is Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles and many other members of the United Kingdom’s elite have gone for their primary school education. Other leading independent schools are Fettes College and Hutchesons Grammar School. What unites independent schools such as these is that they are bastions of privilege. The most febrile expression of this is a “myth buster” blog post by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), in which this body reassured parents that sending their children to Scotland for their education would not result in them returning home with a Scottish accent! For those people not reared in the United Kingdom or immersed in its culture, accent is a clear marker of a person’s class. Consequently, the idea that wealthy parents would pay inflated tuition fees so their children would sound working class, was so horrifying that the SCIS needed to reassure potential customers. Many private schools are wrapped up in the pageantry of social class and forget that their principal mission is to educate and to nurture good citizens of their community.
You see, private school education can degenerate into nothing more than a way for elites to segregate themselves from the rest of society. In many instances, private school education is not markedly better than public school education. The differences are differences in social class and class markers. Parents from overseas are clearly aware of this and were concerned enough that sending their children to Scotland would have them sounding common. These parents needed reassurance that the thousands upon thousands of British pounds that they were paying would not leave their children with a working class accent.
This may seem a very British crisis, but private school education in the United States and the world over has always been prone to degenerating into little more than gilded segregation for the rich, by the rich.
Yet, a good private school does have clear advantages over a public school. It can keep student-teacher ratios low; provide more extracurricular activities and support; involve parents more deeply in the education of their children; use their superior resources to provide their children with better learning and cultural opportunities, as well as safer environments; and they often develop a stronger sense of community than is possible in public schools. As a parent, it’s important to choose a private school that defies the tendency of many private schools to become social class pageants. The right public school can set your child up for a rich and fulfilled life.