Please let there be more research along these lines. Do kids who go to "good schools" (either schools in expensive school districts or private schools) do better, academically, than kids who go to underperforming schools in the inner city? Are you sure? Even after controlling for socio-economic status? I’m not at all sure, and now the Times is reporting on the most recent study in England with this headline: "Privileged children excel, even at low-performing comprehensives".
Now this is a small study, based on interviews: there isn’t lots of mathematics controlling for SES and that sort of thing. Hell, there isn’t even a direct comparison with results from independent schools. But the fact is that the middle-class kids the study is looking at – who went to underperforming schools largely because of their parents’ political views – really did do very well academically.
Interestingly, the one area where the kids didn’t do well was connected to the reason why they were sent to state schools in the first place: social integration.
Our research found segregation within schools with white middle-class children clustered in top sets, often benefiting from ‘Gifted and Talented’ schemes, with little interaction with children from other backgrounds. The children rarely had working class friends and their few minority ethnic friends were predominantly from middle-class backgrounds. There was much evidence of social mix but far less evidence of social mixing.
I’ve said for years now that school fees are probably the single most expensive thing that anybody ever spends money on without doing any kind of cost-benefit analysis or wondering whether it’s actually worth the price. There’s a feeling that such considerations are a sign of bad parenting, almost. But if you want your kid to get very good grades and hang out with other middle-class children, it seems you can get that result at much lower cost by sending her to the local state school.
This doesn’t mean that "good schools" are no better than "bad schools". The parents in the study generally were governors of the schools in question (they wanted to be involved) and the kids in the study generally got much more teacher attention than most kids, and wound up in those "Gifted and Talented" schemes. Middle-class kids get unfair advantages wherever they go, it seems. It’s just that middle-class parents seem to be loath to take advantage of that fact by sending their kids to the local state school.
But just think of the money saved by not sending your kid to a private school. And think what you could achieve if you spent that money on other forms of education – books, travel, music/dance lessons, private tutoring, whatever. For the ultra-wealthy who won’t even notice the school fees leaving their private-banking account, it probably doesn’t make much difference. For everybody else, however, the state-school option is very much worth considering.
And remember, as Chris Dillow says, if it doesn’t work out, you can always change your mind.