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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


Who goes to private school? Looking beyond the money.

By IOE Editor, on 14 March 2020

By Dr. Jake Anders,

While those in private schools make up a fairly small proportion of children attending school in England (although higher than many realise: it is estimated that almost one in ten children attend a private school at some point during their educational careers), it is important to understand who does so. Unlike in many countries, private school attendance in Britain is associated with substantial advantages later in life. Many important and influential fields (such as politics, judges and journalists) are dominated by those who went to private schools when they were children.

It is well known, and unsurprising given the costs associated with attending, that there is a link between family income and attending a private school. However, it is not just the case that all those who can afford it send their children to private schools and those who cannot do not: even among families with high levels of income it is far from the case that all children actually attend a private school. If they are not constrained by finance, what explains why some of these families choose to send their children to a private school and some do not?

Some earlier studies have interviewed parents to ask about their motivations in choosing a school. However, we know that parents might not always be completely honest with a stranger about–or even be fully aware of–the underlying reasons for the decisions they make about personal decisions of this type. Our approach is quite different to such interviews, in that we use quantitative data to compare the characteristics of those whose children attend private schools with those whose children do not. We then try to draw inferences based on such patterns, avoiding the need to ask parents to think hypothetically about what they would have done in different circumstances, and instead basing our findings on their observed behaviour.

Using this approach, we shed new light on two seemingly important factors in explaining parents’ decisions to choose private schooling for their children. Our work was carried out using data from the Millennium Cohort Study: a large-scale research study that has followed a group of children who were born in the year 2000 and their families. The sample is designed to be representative of families across the UK, although in this work we focus specifically on those in England because of the differences in education systems between England and other countries in the UK. Every few years participating families are asked questions about their child’s development, their educational progress, and family life more generally. The data from this study allows us to paint a rich picture of families’ circumstances and finding out about the decisions they have made, meaning we can look at the links between these among those taking part.

First, the role of parents’ personal beliefs and values. To attempt to measure these, we analysed the responses parents gave to a set of statements about their views on family life when their child was one year old. One of the measurable values that emerged from this analysis we refer to as “traditional” values; two examples of the particular statements relevant to capturing these factors are ‘Couples who have children should not separate’ and ‘It is alright for people to have children without being married’. We found that, even when we compare families with similar levels of income, parents with higher levels of these “traditional” values were more likely to send their children to private school. We find this particularly explaining the variation in private school attendance among families with high levels of income, with this finding similar in spirit to earlier work by Stephen Ball whose interviews with parents identified that, for some people, “private schooling is a possible but unacceptable choice”.

Second, we explored the relevance of where families live on the educational choices they make for their children. Specifically, we calculate how close families live to the nearest state schools we think some parents might be more likely to see as substitutes for private schools. By doing so, we are able to observe that families who live closer to academically selective grammar schools, or who live closer to schools judged ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, are less likely to send their children to private schools. While some of this difference could be caused by families deliberately moving, in order to live close to such schools (often in areas with higher housing costs), this link persists among those with similar levels of family income and other key characteristics, suggesting the patterns we see aren’t only about differences in house prices near to such schools, for example.

Overall, we provide new evidence about some of the reasons–beyond the basic finances–that parents make decisions about private schooling. Among parents with low levels of “traditional” values it is much less likely that they will choose private schooling for their children, no matter how much income they have. Adding to this, some parents who would otherwise choose private education are happy to send their children to a state school if they live close to one with certain characteristics, such as a high Ofsted rating. Findings such as these should make us mindful of the complexities of decisions parents make about private schooling and the implications these have for the composition of pupils in both state and private sectors.

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