Choosing whether or not to send your children to a private school and pay the high yearly fees is a decision all parents (or future parents) will have to make. For many this is an easy decision, but for the rest of us – I delved in to see whether the extortionate prices are worth it or whether the money spent could be better used elsewhere.

Paying the money to send your child to private school is a very personal choice. Those who have attended these schools report higher quality teaching with smaller class sizes, a wider array of extra-curricular activities and the setting to form invaluable social ties but this all comes with a price.

The benefits of private school are clear but a convincing case can be made to save on the private school fees, invest the money and gift your child a sizeable sum in their 20’s to use for their first house deposit or to start a business. Let’s see how both sides of the debate weigh up…

Is private school a waste of your money?

There’s no getting around the fact private school IS expensive. I’ve taken a look at the precise costs you’ll have to endure below but for the time being let’s just assume it’s a lot.

Whether private school is worth it or not is naturally relative to your wealth, if you are a multi-millionaire and the fees are a drop in the bucket for you, then you’d probably be inclined say private school is worth it due to the clear uptick in educational standards on average. However, if you live off a more modest income and private school fees ended up being one your single largest expenses, sending your child to a state school may be the better way to go.

I am personally grammar school educated so I threw this question out to the good people of Reddit hoping to get some first hand accounts from students of private schools. The thread, which can be found here, ended up receiving over 100 comments. While the opinions varied, a few common themes began to emerge:

  1. The educational standards of a private school are substantially higher on average than a state school. A number of commentators suggested being at a private school, with the higher quality teaching and the more individual focus on each student due to smaller class sizes, enabled them to achieve academic success they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
  2. Many reported that the social connections idea was a bit of a myth with a few ex-students going as far to say that they developed zero lasting connections from their time in private school. However, the occasional poster pointed out they made a connection that wouldn’t have been possible in a state school.
  3. An ethical discussion emerged regarding the ‘unfair’ advantage a private school student may receive if he or she had access to opportunities (e.g. an internship in their friends parents big consultancy firm) than state-school students may not get access too.
  4. I was surprised to see the focus on the benefits private schools provided in respect of extra curricular activities – with many reporting the quality, variety and competitiveness of these activities being key to developing their personalities into adulthood.

How much does private school actually cost

The cost of private school varies depending on quality and type (day vs boarding). A parent could expect to pay anywhere between £12,500 for the cheapest and £42,500 a year for the most elite private schools in the country.

At a prestigious boarding-style private school like Eton College, parents could expect to pay £42,500 per year as of 2019. For a typical student who attends for 5 years between the age of 13-18, this is a total outlay of £212,500 for you child’s education without even considering inflation of those fees over time.

However, many private schools are significantly cheaper, in 2018, The Independent reported that the average annual private school fee had risen to over £17,000 per year (85,000 over the course of a 5 year secondary school career).

The cheapest private schools I could find online still came in at around £12,500 per year (£62,500 total) with the smaller fees presumably reflecting the lower standards of education that could be expected.

For typical middle-class families, these fees are clearly significant. So one has to ask if the money could be used to benefit your children in a different way.

How else could the money be used to benefit your children

If parents saved and invested the average private school annual fee of £17,000 above into equities, at the end of 5 years, they would be left with £101,580 assuming 6% return in the stock market and annual (rather than termly) payments.

I have included the calculations below for reference.

The assumptions used here are a 5 year time period, 6% rate of return on investments, £17,000 annual payment paid at the start of each year.

As can be seen, if this money was invested rather than spent on private school, the parent would be left with £101,580 using a conservative rate of return. This includes £16,580 of investment returns.

A parent may decide that gifting this saved money to their child at age 18 (or later) and enabling them to get onto the property ladder or have start-up capital for a business venture may be more advantageous than a private school education (particularly if the free local state schools are well regarded).

One caveat to this comes from Thomas J Stanley, author of the excellent ‘The Millionaire Next Door’ whose research suggests that children who accept significant financial gifts from their parents will, on average, both earn less and amass lower net worths in their adult lives.

Alternatively, the £17,000 could be saved each year and spent on experiences, hobbies, holidays and other such events for your child which may provide a more rounded youth than a private school could.

Robert Kiyosaki (the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, one of the recommended books on my ‘TPP recommends‘ page) is vocal on the subject that school doesn’t prepare you for success, but rather, to become part of the employment pool. Using this logic, spending your money on engaging your child’s interests may be better use of money than on a formal education.

A final point to consider is this – if you are stretching yourself incredibly thin to pay for private school, is this truly beneficial for the child? They may well receive a good education but at the cost of perennially stressed parents with little money for other hobbies or fun, it may not prove to be the best trade-off. There is also the risk here of resentment building within the family. If you pay a substantial part of your wealth to a private school, you have an expectation for your child to work hard and do well academically. However, some children are simply not academically inclined and excel in others areas. This could cause tension in a family and deteriorate the parent – child relationship in some cases.

These alternatives are valid options, but the question remains – do these trump the benefits of a private school education as discussed below?

The benefits of private school

Improved education

Of the ex-private school students or the parents with children currently enrolled in private schools I spoke to, almost all said they believed they were receiving a superior education on average to that provided by a state school. This is a hard thing to prove as most people only experience one or the other so don’t have a fair comparative, but the statistics do seem to back it up.

The Guardian reported here that an over-represented portion of private school kids went on to be Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates. They state that whilst only 7.2% of British Children are educated privately, they make up 39% of Cambridge undergraduates and 42% of Oxford graduates.

These top tier universities have stringent grade requirements, often asking for students to have 3 A’s at A-level. Based on this, it’s clear that private schools are more able to produce the highest performing students academically.

Beyond exam performance, it seems the extra-curricula activities a private school student can get involved in is also beneficial in distinguishing themselves in an Oxbridge application.

Better extra-curricula activities

The most surprising element whilst researching for this post was the importance private school students place on extra-curricula activities, which to me had been more of an after-thought. The wide variety and high quality of both equipment and teachers (one person pointed out that their private school rugby teacher was an ex-England pro) seems to provide children with the opportunity to develop their personality in competitive and challenging hobbies.

The importance of getting access to these types of experiences and clubs really can’t be understated, particularly when you consider the social connections that are built on the back of them.

Social connections to benefit future careers

Prior to researching this topic, I had somewhat naively assumed the biggest benefit of attending a private school would be the invaluable social connections that could be formed. In my head, I had a nepotistic vision of students spending their summers interning at their friends parents prestigious jobs and being best mates with kids who would one day go on to be the politicians, bankers and other ruling class of the country.

Perhaps this is the case in truly elite schools such as Eton College, but on the whole, the Reddit commentators didn’t seem to agree. 3 different comments eluded to making ‘0 connections’ throughout their time at private school and whilst this is too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions, it does imply that the social benefits of private schools is down to the individual students ambitions.

Another interesting topic that was raised was that many parents elect to send their children to private schools for their own motives. Particularly in wealthy neighbourhoods, there is a keeping up with the Jones’ element to it with families trying to avoid the social exclusion of sending their children to a different school regardless of the impact it has on their specific financial situation.

One respondent pointed out “This is not the kind of society I want to live in. Rupert, Tamara and Pongo getting all the cream by virtue of their family wealth.” Sorry to any readers who have children with these names* but that doesn’t seem an entirely unfair point and highlights a deeper inequality of opportunity within our society that will be discussed in a future post.

‘* Except Pongo, if you’ve named your child Pongo, i’m afraid you had this coming.

Conclusion

My original question asked whether private schools were worth the money and as is the case with most questions, a little more nuance than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is needed.

For the mega wealthy, clearly private school is a logical choice for your children where the annual school fees have no real impact on your standard of living. Both the statistics and individual anecdotes seem to suggest a better education on average within a private school and a higher likelihood of future success.

However, for the rest of the population, each household will have to weigh up this choice with reference to their own child’s personality, the quality of the state-schools in the area and how the money would be otherwise used.

The general consensus from the Redditor’s asked was that the benefits of private school are highly dependent on the child themselves. Specifically, if a child is serious about their own education, private school is a place where they can truly thrive but if the child is not academically inclined, the competitive nature of private schools may be detrimental to certain students confidence.

My personal instinct for any future children i’d be lucky enough to have is that I wouldn’t send them to private school.

As a well-educated student myself whose parents didn’t pay school fees, I am not convinced the benefits outweigh the costs and my preference as it stands is to use the money to enhance my kids childhood and save the money to help them in later life where required. As with anything though, I am open to changing my mind in the future if I saw convincing evidence in favour of private schools.

This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my ‘About‘ page for more information. To get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts, please comment below or contact me here.