The True Cost Of Private Schools

private school cost

Note: This post was first published in August 2019 and subsequently updated in September 2021

When I first wrote this post more than two years ago, I had no idea how much of a nerve it would strike with readers.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  We are all genetically wired to get our kids off to the best start in life possible.  And naturally, schools have a massive role to play here.

Since the original post, I have long wanted to refresh my thoughts on the topic and now seems like a good time to do so. 

Our daughter started school a few weeks ago.  We are also thinking through schooling options for our son.

To paraphrase Nassim Taleb, don’t ask me what I think – ask me what I do.

And so, I hope today’s article will be useful to all the parents and future parents out there who are considering private education for their children. 

As a side note, I am using the UK school system as an example, but the facts below hold for many other countries with a big private school sector (i.e. the US).

With that in mind, let’s kick off. 

The Eternal Private School Argument

As it happens, I have gone through the state school system myself and private education was never an option for me.

Fortunately, I received an undergraduate degree from a solid university and followed that with a top MBA a few years later.  It’s fair to say things have worked out well.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that I’ve had an ongoing mental debate on the topic of private education for our children, which usually goes along the following lines:

  • Voice of reason: “If I, a first-generation immigrant, have become successful despite having gone to a state school, surely my kids won’t have an issue?  They are already light years ahead of where I started!”
  • Voice of anxiety: “But what if I’m wrong?  What if I just got lucky?  What if I’m sabotaging my children’s future?”
  • Voice of reason: “Well, if it’s all down to luck, why go to a private school in the first place?  There are plenty of Oxbridge graduates out there with the same jobs as kids from state schools.”
  • Voice of anxiety: “Well, just wait till your kids grow up and can’t get the jobs they want. Good luck explaining your logic then!”

And on and on it goes.

With decision time approaching, I have finally set out to answer three questions in a structured way:

#1:  What are the advantages of private schools?

#2:  What is the true cost of private schools?

#3: As a function of #1 and #2 above, is private school education worth it?

The reality is, if you are in a position to even contemplate sending your child to a private school here in the UK (or anywhere else), you are already way better off than 99% of the world’s population.

At the same time, private education is likely to be the second-largest expense you will ever incur. 

And if you account for compounding, it is by far the biggest financial decision you will ever make (more on this below)

Is it really the right choice for you?

The Advantages Of Private Schools

To me, this one is a no-brainer.  Most people will agree that private schools have multiple advantages vis-à-vis their state equivalents:

#1: Better Facilities

Private schools often boast nicer buildings with better sports amenities, well-equipped libraries, state-of-the-art media centers and nice auditoriums.

#2: Better Teachers

This is a contentious one and surely there are many fantastic state school teachers out there as well as more than a few mediocre private school teachers. 

Nonetheless, because of their profit motive and a more effective parental feedback loop, on average private schools do benefit from higher caliber teaching talent. 

#3: Smaller Classrooms

Budgetary pressures and difficulties in recruiting teachers (maths is a common one) mean that state school class sizes have been going up. 

It’s not unusual for class sizes to exceed 30 or even 35 children.

If you send your child to a private school, there is a very high chance he or she will end up in a much smaller class of 15 or 20 pupils. 

This, in turn, means a better teacher/pupil ratio and more attention for your child, leading to better educational outcomes.

#4: A More Supportive Environment

Somewhat related to the better teacher/pupil ratio and a profit motive, there is a thesis that a private school environment is more conducive to stimulating your child’s unique abilities and helping them address their weaknesses. 

#5: Narrower Ability Range

Parents who send their children to private schools tend to select schools that will best fit their children’s profile. 

In theory, this means that academic-focused children end up in academic-focused schools, while children with a predilection for things like performing arts will end up in a school that better fits their profile.

Teachers can naturally accomplish a lot more in a class where most students have an aptitude and a passion for the subject being taught. 

#6: Better Network

Not having gone to a private school, I wouldn’t know what it feels like.  I also question the durability of the networks you build in primary or secondary school. 

However, many Old Etonians and Old Harrovians wax lyrical about the network their schools have given them. 

#7: Admission To Better Universities

This is likely one of the most important factors. 

According to the Access to Advantage report published by the Sutton Trust, private school students are seven times more likely to secure a place at Oxford or Cambridge than students at non-selective state schools. 

They are also twice as likely to secure a place at a Russell Group University than their non-selective state school counterparts. 

#8: Better Job Prospects

I am heavily involved in recruiting junior investment bankers at my firm. 

Sadly, first-hand experience suggests that the (perceived) quality of an applicant’s undergraduate degree weighs heavily on their chances of getting an interview.  

I would take someone with passion and drive over a lazy Oxbridge graduate any day of the week, but unfortunately, there is a very strong bias towards higher-caliber universities. 

Chances are it is just as applicable in other professional services as it is in investment banking. 

I’ve picked the most obvious ones, but the list of advantages doesn’t stop here. 

The majority of people seem to coalesce around the opinion that the quality and outcomes of private school education will typically trump that of a state school. 

What Is The True Cost Of Private Schools?

The cost of private schools is probably the biggest factor that determines whether parents ultimately send their children into the state vs. private education system.

What is surprising is that this is precisely the aspect most folks seem to underestimate. The headline price is important enough – but there are three other critical factors at play here:

  1. Price increases over time (which have historically exceeded inflation)
  2. Ancillary fees (school trips, uniforms, sports clubs, etc.)
  3. Most importantly, the opportunity cost

Let’s address these items in turn.

The table below shows the evolution of private school fees assuming you were to place your child into a private school today.  The average private school fees now exceed £17,000 per year

In addition, you can easily budget around 20% of the headline fee to accommodate for the ancillary items I have listed above.  Funny how much more expensive that white t-shirt becomes once you put a pretty logo on it!

In total, this brings your total annual fee to c.£20,400 in year 1.

Unhelpfully, you can pretty much count on school fees growing well ahead of inflation every year (wouldn’t it be nice if your pay did the same?)

Yes, there was a bit of a blip throughout Covid where fees have only gone up 1% or so. 

However, the relief seems to be temporary, with this year’s price increases well ahead of inflation.

And so, by the time your not-so-little one heads off to university in 14 years, you can expect to be shelling out almost £34,000 in school fees in that last year.

Evolution of Private School Fees

private school cost over time

Once you tally everything up, you will have spent about £373k on school fees over the 14 years.  

This covers off items #1 and #2 above. 

However, it is the opportunity cost point that is most important and can lead to some really sobering conclusions. 

The Opportunity Cost of Private Schools

Let’s imagine for a moment that instead of handing your hard-earned money to the headmistress every year, you invested it instead. 

Assuming a 7% return in the stock markets (which is well south of what the magic money machine has delivered in the past), that £373k would grow to about £616k by the time your child has graduated school. 

Of course, giving your child over half a million pounds when they turn 18 is rarely a good idea.  Let’s say you were to leave that money invested until your daughter turns 22.    

If you left the money invested for another 4 years, the £616k would increase to £807k. 

22-year olds are generally better with money than 18-year olds, but the difference is usually marginal.  The lack of judgment is still there to an extent – after all, there is a reason why even Zipcar requires its drivers to be at least 23 years old. 

So what if you wanted your child to get a taste for real life and work for a few years while the money continues growing in that investment account? 

To the extent you really wanted to test your progeny’s patience and left the pot untouched until your child turns 30, it would grow to £1.4m. 

And if you leave it there until they turn 40 and the number becomes £2.7m. 

That’s right, £2.7m. 

Private School Fees, Reinvested

private school fees reinvested

At this point in time, your child is 40 and has had an ample taste of real life – including the sacrifice it takes to grow wealth.

He or she is hopefully now settled down and has a family.  Imagine how far £2.7m could go to improving their quality of life?

Yes, £2.7m in 35 years will be worth far less than today.  But even post inflation at 2% per year, it represents £1.4m in today’s money. 

The best part, of course, is that your child is much more likely to appreciate the money and put it to good use. 

And if they don’t appreciate the chart below at 40, it is unlikely they ever would:

private school fees reinvested 2

Of course, there are some fundamental assumptions underpinning the analysis above:

  1. You will save and invest the money you save on private school fees
  2. You maintain your earnings at the same level (no secret many folks stay in soul-sucking jobs just to fund private education)
  3. The private school fees would have been funded by you and not by your family or through scholarships/bursaries (i.e. you can actually get your hands on that money)
  4. You will manage to pass the savings on your kids in a tax-efficient way (see comments below)

Even taking these factors into account, the private school opportunity cost is astounding.

But, life is full of curveballs – and so that’s not where the argument ends.

The Cost Of (Good) Public Schools

Here’s the thing, the alternative option is (rarely) free.

As one of the readers pointed out in the comments section, it comes with a whole bunch of costs as well.

First of all, you need to move into the catchment area of a good school.  In our area, that means paying a 20-30% premium on “market” rents (though some folks move back out just a year later).

If you own a house, it gets even more challenging. You sell your house, incur all the transaction fees, and buy a much more expensive one.

Then you’ve got to tick all the other boxes that may be required – apparently, some folks even change their religion.  Talk about stress!

And finally, you’ve got to account for the cost of private tutors to make sure your kids don’t fall behind their private school counterparts.

Factor all these expenses in, and the financial case might not be as straightforward anymore.

What We Ended Up Doing

After having laid out the arguments above, it’s only fair to be transparent about the route my wife and I have chosen for our kids.

As it happens, both will go private.  Our daughter started in a girls-only school a few weeks ago. 

Our son has now been enrolled at a boys-only school for September 2024 (if we are still living in the UK at that time).

At the end of the day, this is one where emotions trumped financial logic. 

What also played a role is that I had a couple of good (albeit stressful) years at work, and so did my wife.  Yes, sending kids to a private school means both of us will have to work at least 3-5 years longer than we would otherwise.

Then again, both of us come from immigrant families that prioritize education above all.  Our parents have literally crossed oceans to give us a better life. 

Not doing the same for our children seems irresponsible at best, highly egotistical at worst.

The other aspect that played a role was that our daughter seems to be particularly bright for her age.  Now, I know all parents say that, and I am no exception. 

However, she was offered places at some of the most competitive schools in London, and it simply felt wrong to send her to the local state school instead.

As for our son, it would be highly unfair to send him to state if his sister is going private, questions of ability notwithstanding. 

At the end of the day, choosing the right school “track” for their children is one of the most important decisions a parent will ever make.

We’ve obviously gone full circle on this one, and have zero regrets about the path we have chosen.  I hope that today’s article is helpful in making the right decision for you – and your children.

As always, thank you for reading.

About Banker On Fire

Enjoyed this post?

Then you may want to sign up for our exclusive updates, delivered straight to your inbox.

You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or share the post using the buttons above.

Banker On FIRE is an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker. I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence, and living the best life possible.

Find out more about me and this blog here.

If you are new to investing, here is a good place to start.

For advertising opportunities, please send an email to bankeronfire at gmail dot com

69 thoughts on “The True Cost Of Private Schools”

  1. In our case we’ve spent around $70k per year on private school tuition alone in Singapore and cut this to close to $0 by switching to public school in Switzerland. The accumulated opportunity cost delta is at around $3mio for the whole schooling time including college. Beware of this one!!!

    1. It’s a bit of a shocker really. Unfortunately, there is just so much societal pressure and parental guilt around the topic of private schools here in the UK.

      Many people (who are privately educated themselves) don’t realize that private schools are now firmly out of reach of the middle class. As a result, they blow up their financial well-being to send their kids to private schools as well. That, by the way, puts a ton of pressure on the kids who see the sacrifices their parents made and feel compelled to take up high-paying (but less rewarding) jobs to justify the expense… the cycle doesn’t end.

  2. Interesting article. However, a major omission in your calculation is the tax bill your child would have to pay when she gets the funds from you – gift or inheritance taxes. How would that affect your conclusion? Interested in your thoughts.
    Certainly tough for all those parents who don’t have the excess money and are trying to do what’s best for their children while not knowing what the future holds in terms of demand for professions.

    1. Great point. My view is that with sufficient planning, it’s possible to significantly reduce the inheritance tax bill, at least here in the UK.

      First, there’s the IHT exemption of c.£475k/person, which means a couple can pass on c.£950k free of inheritance tax.
      Then there’s the ability to make IHT-free gifts, provided you survive for 7 years after making the gift.
      Finally, there’s the opportunity to shelter some of the money by using a Junior ISA and contributing to a pension for your children (though I don’t like either idea for various reasons).

      There may be some tax left to pay on the residual chunk of money but it sure won’t be the 40% headline rate. And given the amounts of money we are talking about here, that’s still a serious chunk of change you are passing on to your children.

          1. Very interesting article and my conclusion is that private schools are infinitely better than public, bug as you suggest, the cost should also be considered. Here in Germany, private schools are not so expensive, €5-600 per month, but probably not on the same standard as private UK schools.
            It is a Shame they scrapped the Grammar School System as the main reason for schools decline is they don’t teach the Trivium or Quadrivium like they do at Eton … I wonder why that would be. Lol

  3. Good post.
    What you.don’t mention is that whilst private schools get better exam results the effect of selecting pupils meams that they don’t deliver much extra in terms of grades.
    Money would be better spent on private tutors than private school.
    My kids are 3 1/2 a d 18m – we’ve thought about private school but it’s not worth it.

    1. Banker On FIRE

      Yes, the selection point is important.

      Perhaps even more important (and disappointing) is that private schools often “manage” some of the underperforming students out in order to maintain their scores and admission performance.

      Can’t imagine having a “perhaps your child is better off elsewhere” conversation after ponying up those fees year after year.

  4. Great article, love the mind arguments – I’m very much wrestling with this and have been for quite some time! – Yes, agree, money is probably better off invested – though not sure on those 7% returns – could, and I have, lost quite a sum on the stock market!

    1. Banker On FIRE

      Thank you.

      I hear you – it’s been a year since I wrote this post and my wife and I are still wrestling with this argument. Older daughter is due to go through assessments in January.

      Our preference would be to get into the local state school but with the catchment area the size of a peanut, we may end up going private. That being said, longer-term state school is more likely, especially once I leave the investment banking grind (and pay!) behind.

      Either we stay in the UK and move to a catchment area of a good state school, otherwise up sticks and move to another country with a good state school system (also very much on the cards).

      1. Here in the southern US there are moderately priced religious schools that have strong foundational programs in math and reading. I attended one and I send my children to one as well. It is very important to get the basics right early (here the public schools are always changing the way math and reading are taught) and that is 100% worth it for us.

        1. Sounds like a good option. I went to a (public) catholic high school myself and found it to be a great option in retrospect.

          Also agree very important to get the right foundation in place at an early age – makes all the difference when it comes to subsequent education.

  5. Very interesting article! Very mind stimulating.

    My husband and I are still wrestling with this idea. Our little girl passed her assessment last year and now has her offer but we are still not sure We don’t want to start and stop.

    Also, this private Montessori school boasts of 100% success rate for their pupils first choice of secondary schools which is very tantalising.

    We got the letter from the Council to apply for state schools by mid-Jan and we just in two minds now.

    1. We are in the same boat actually.

      Our four-year-old is going through assessments now and has landed a few offers but will give the local state school a shot as well.

      Interesting how cold financial logic takes a back seat when it comes to children, isn’t it?

  6. Your article is thought provoking but I only see a one sided view. It’s clear that private schools are expensive. What you don’t focus on is the cost of getting into a good state school. Moving house, renting a house, changing religion. As a parent, I am able to pay for private tuition but opted for a very good all girls school in the commute belt, we had to set about on how we got our beloved into it. So while you identify an opportunity cost for not sending children to private schools, I think I spent just as much on travel, networking, moving house and renting and stress. What I considered when and if I would fuse a private school, who owns the private school, a certain country has been buying up private institutions. What is the curriculum taught, IB, AP, or GCSE or alevel. Your article has got a response from me. I hope I have shown that the right state school is a terrible journey to get into, but the outcome is a game changer. Private are focused on share holder value, and outside the UK the rules and regulations and how they achieve that bottom line, are much more loose than in the UK. Thanks

    1. Banker On FIRE

      You raise very good and insightful points, thank you.

      It’s time I give this post a proper update – not least because we ended up sending our older child to private school.

      1. Great post and blog. Would love to read your updated views here. Would also be interested in how you think about the money which will be used for fees. I.e have you mentally ringfenced part of your ISA and any views for those who are in the saving phase but don’t yet have enough to cover the fees.

  7. Interesting post, thank you.

    Did you consider state school, investing the school fee money to hit your FIRE number earlier, to allow you or your wife to work less and spend more time with your kids, helping them with homework, projects, educational trips etc?

    Not questioning your decision-making, it’s just a thought in my mind, thanks!

    1. Definitely.

      A few thoughts on that front:

      – We would indeed be able to retire earlier, but probably not before our kids are 10 and 7 respectively. Thus, we were worried about missing out on the key formative years – perhaps not as much about education itself, but the love for learning

      – We still help our kids with homework etc, but I guess what it boils down to is realizing we aren’t professional educators so probably won’t be able to do as good of a job

      – Finally, it’s likely my wife will take a career break over the next few years to do all the things you point to anyway. Which automatically extends my working career by a few more years. Once again, not a deal-breaker for me given I don’t feel (mentally) ready to retire soon anyway 🙂

  8. Hi BoF, nice to see the update. We are in a fairly similar family situation to you (we are state school educated, wife immigrated to UK, 2 kids in private London schools).

    I agree with almost all your points, loved the mental dialogue.

    Having gone down the private route perhaps I tend to look for things to validate my position ?. Hence the only item I might disagree with is the 20% additional costs. The uniform is expensive but both our schools run nearly new sales, and it seems to have last our two for years. Trips etc are common to both state and private schools.

    Having richer peers might lead impressionable kids to want more material things – the counter to that is a good grounding at home in the value of money, and maybe choosing friends carefully.

    Over the pandemic the private schools really added value by running full time online schooling. Maybe a one off, but an example of the protection you are buying.

    1. Hi Jo and BOF,

      Private and state, been able to have my kids go through the system. Private albeit was abroad. The face of education is changing. Covid has just moved it faster along. International education which is private in the UK, is and will be moving towards a hybrid system. If Government in the UK recognize Open University Online courses, stands to reason that at some point a child can be educated online and private schools will have to be looking at that everywhere. Would I want to pay almost 30k gbp a year as I did in Vietnam for private education? There are companies such as edu-teach and pamoja education access to courses that schools can’t run. Sports facilities and after school activities, private schools in the UK have the edge. My daughter goes to Loretto College in Hertfordshire. The school blazer was a 120gbp. A non refundable locker fee is 30 gbp. This school is fantastic. I would say better than private. The costs of getting her in there along with canteen food, (amazing cafeteria there, choice and available all day for all budget) but there is a different food for those who are on free school meals. This state school where she goes is just as expensive and I stand by what I said, but I love the update and can see it from both your views. But the hybrid will mean that private schools could be making more return on investment if they were to say stop leasing school buildings, if they did. For us, I see choice and hopefully better equity. I see that there is an equity issue in the school my youngest goes to in Hertfordshire. State grammar school, excellent facilities, but if parents are on a budget, as we all are, children children will face this equity dilemma in the canteen. I had forgotten to load her card. She can spend up to 10gbp a day. Breakfast lunch and snacks. In her case second breakfast ?. I don’t begrudge this. But when she did not have the money it showed me that students and parents who are state free school meals will see a difference in not quality but choice. I am taking my family back to my wife’s country soon. It will be private there, but I see reforms taking place which will mean in 20 years time the going to school for kids will mean logging in. I see the market for summer, after school and holidays getting more competitive. The online platforms will be appearing more. Am not sure if I am even ready for that. Thanks and hope you all understand my rambling effort.

      1. Thanks for sharing, and I can certainly see your perspective.

        As you will have read above, we have definitely gone full circle on this one. At the end of the day, there’s no right answer – you can get excellent outcomes both ways, albeit at different costs (monetary and non-monetary).

        I suppose a big part of it is to make a decision that gives you peace of mind – because you know that under the circumstances, you are doing the best you can for your kids.

    2. Cheers Jo.

      Yes all excellent points – it did loom large that Covid / home learning went far better for private schools vs state schools, at least in our area.

      Hope you are right on the 20% uplift. So far, we’ve had to pay quite a bit for uniforms and clubs, but perhaps it does ease off

      Let’s see how it goes with richer peers. Our school has a few billionaire / celebrity offsprings but mostly folks like me and my wife – i.e. well earning professionals but not filthy rich by any means. As you say, it’s pretty much down to the example you set at home on that front.

  9. I was lucky enough to go to minor private school in the late 90s and graduated in 2004. My parents sacrificed their financial future for my brother and myself. I have done well and in the top 0.5% earning wise. My wife is a good earner too.

    I have wrestled with this issue for years. We have three children. My eldest daughter passed 2 x common entrance exams this year but, ultimately, we decided to send her to the local secondary school rated outstanding and a 5 minute walk away. I have decided against prep school for the other two.

    For me, the financial cost is too great – the lost opportunity costs not to mention the never ending stress dealing with the financial commitment. If you are in the top 1%, it is still a lot to take on to pay fees out of taxable income. I also think that there is not a huge difference between the outstanding secondary comps and the minor private schools. Boarding school is slightly different.

    Many of my private school contemporaries have led unremarkable careers. Out of the 25 I see regularly, only three have had financial success thus far, two of which were poor academically but set up their own businesses. From what I have seen, schooling may have played a part but highly motivated children of high achieving parents are likely to do well wherever you put them. Much of success is built on character, hard work and luck. There is a difference between correlation and causation. Just because successful people went to private school doesn’t mean private school was the reason for that success. I suppose, having been to private school, I am not so enraptured by its mystique.

    I also think the private school network is overrated. Unless you are going to a top public school such Harrow, charterhouse, Eton etc, a minor private school network is not going to take you that far at all. I have found that sports are a great leveller for networking As a man. If your boy plays rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, sailing to any type of level, he will have no difficulties securing a future network.

    My wife and I have used the spare £4500 per month (post tax) not being spent on private schools on other extra curricular activities. All three children do Kumon (Japanese maths) everyday, Arabic lessons for my eldest daughter 3x a week, gymnastics for all three, tennis once a week at an exclusive club so they can see how the really wealthy live, swimming at the same club, rugby during winter and cricket in the summer. I have ample cash left over to book foreign holidays 2 times per year and park money for pensions. I do not lie in bed worrying about my business or how I’m going to pay for education. If something happens to my income, I can cut all these extras in a stroke. Whilst I like my job now, in 10 years time when I’m in my mid 40s, I might feel very different. If I’m locked into private school fees, I could see resentment starting to creep in.

    I think not sending my children to private school will end up being the best decision I ever made.

    1. Fantastic perspective, thank you. Obviously not having gone to a private school myself, I am missing that part of the context but as mentioned above, I tend to agree on quite a few points.

      Private schools don’t necessarily mean better outcomes – have definitely observed that one at work. And certainly for the network – not sure how many lifelong friends one makes when they are 10 (though you seem to be in touch with quite a few folks)

      Interestingly enough, I’m not sure what our decision would have been if we had three kids. We can comfortably put two of them through private school but would be a tighter rope to walk with one more.

  10. Interesting topic and comments. We took advantage of state school at primary stage, then private school for secondary. I honestly think Oxbridge for university would not have been possible without the private school ‘support’ and that’s despite the necessary innate talent and ability being there – these schools are geared for pushing this opportunity to the max. I wish it were not so, and that all schools provided the same opportunities, but there it is.

    However, the comment about being locked in to private school fees is very valid and I would very carefully consider that before jumping down the private school route, especially if future incone is being relied on to pay fees. This could potentially become a major cause of financial stress depending on job market changes in years to come. From experience, do expect more than inflation increases.

    Dont regret going down this route, as it worked out for the best, but its not a straightforward decision as comments show.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, interesting to hear about the “hybrid” approach.

      I think it’s one of the biggest financial decisions one will make here in the UK. If you have two ore more kids, it’s a more important one than even buying a house.

      Out of interest, how was your experience going from a state school in primary to a private in secondary? Were admissions a pain?

  11. Private schools are very popular here and quite common because they also get some state funding , so they are more affordable. The reasons for going private are for quality, religious and a different/alternative school types such as Montessori or Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner). The very rich however send their children to private school in Switzerland.

  12. We live in Norway and chose a private international school for our son. The government sponsors all approved private schools, and so we only pay 325 euro a month including school bus transportation.

    1. Well, that’s Norway for you 🙂 Amazing to say the least – I’ve also heard of some very generous funding programs at the university level (basically can go to study at any university in the world and the government will fund it).

      Sadly this would never happen in the UK.

  13. The switch from state to private school wasnt a problem (though did involve an interview, various tests, and then selection by the school from a number of candidates, as places were not unlimited). This is quite common in the area we live in – quite a number of parents switch to private either a year or two before end of primary or at the end of that stage. Numbers become more limited the more one delays I think, but with a number of private schools in the area to apply to its not too much of a risk.

    Agree its one of the biggest financial decisions one can make, especially if you have two or more children – one to be considered very carefully. We could not have afforded private school fees for primary aswell.

    1. Very helpful, thank you.

      I think what many folks struggle with in London is admissions to places like St Pauls Girls School etc if one is not coming from a top private or one of the few outstanding state schools.

      Hence, they go private from reception to maximize the chances of admission.

  14. Really interesting article but it did feel like a means to the end of justifying your final choice. I would take exception, particularly, to the idea that private school teachers are better than state school teachers. I have never seen any reason to believe that is the case. With the almost-certain exception of the headteacher, they are not necessarily paid more and they will often work longer hours, so I’m not sure the profit motive is as powerful as claimed. The schools themselves, and so the teachers in them, are often held to lower standards (private schools often do not need to go through OFSTED inspections, for example, and their own inspection bodies are… less rigorous, shall we say. Whether that is a good thing or not is entirely up to the individual.)

    Likewise, results are often – not always – kept high by booting out kids who are underachieving (struggle with Year 12? No Year 13 for you.) It is often noted how bright, charming and confident privately educated kids are; that might well be because everyone else either did not get accepted or was removed before completion! Additionally, practically every kid in the exam years has an army of private tutors to shore up what they are doing in school.

    There are some nightmare state schools, obviously, and it is always a matter of researching what is right for a particular kid but I do often get the feeling that what parents are paying through the nose for is not better education but a more pleasant experience with less boisterous kids and a higher social class of parents, as well as more of a death march at the end to get them through exams. And I am not criticizing – that may be what is needed to achieve a certain goal for a certain kid but I would also not immediately say that it was a better long-term choice for most.

    I currently teach in a private school. It’s great – it could hardly fail to be with a cohort who has already been selected for academic (and social) ability, supported by wealthy parents and private tutors to do half the work for us – but it is not 17000 quid better than several of the local state schools. In many areas it is not even as good as one of the one of the local state schools. At a guess, I’d say it’s a good choice for very bright kids who actually benefit from better resources OR very wealthy parents who can afford the most expensive schools and who want to buy those future networks to grease the way for their kids; for everyone else, it might be a better idea to stick to a decent state school and hire those tutors. As ever, there are exceptions to everything, particularly if the child has certain individual needs (including your daughter’s giftedness, if that’s what it is) which mean a smaller independent school might cater better to them.

    1. Great perspectives, thank you.

      To be very candid, it wasn’t about justifying the decision at all. However, when I first wrote this post 2 years ago, I was leaning quite heavily towards the state school option given the costs involved.

      Since then, my wife and I have gone the opposite way, hence I thought it would be good to share our thought process in a transparent way.

      You also make an excellent point about selection bias. I’ve heard of multiple situations where the private school would “manage” out certain pupils.

      No surprise getting fantastic outcomes with a bunch of bright kids. Much more impressive to achieve the same outcomes with a class of children with a normal distribution of abilities.


    Our family explored these options a few years ago. We both attended state schools in the UK, and have friends who attended both state and fee-paying schools. On that small sample it is not clear to me that the fee-paying schools were advantageous. Also, as parents with a restrained family lifestyle, on visiting the open days of three fee paying schools, we and our children found them to be marketed very much as a luxury product. Such luxury would have been out of line with the relatively modest lifestyle that helped us to achieve financial independence. Not struggling financially to fund such a luxury purchase will leave us as parents better able to support our children onto the housing ladder.
    These are individual family choices and I hope your plan works for you.

    1. Thank you. It’s amazing how this decision is 80% psychological and only 20% financial. Something about children that throws the usual logic on its head – a fact that many schools clearly capitalize on.

  16. I’m quite curious if there are studies out there that definitively conclude that private school is better than public school, or if it’s all just marketing?

    I mean, all the points above are great – for example, smaller sized classrooms, more attention to each student, and better networks. I don’t know if I agree with “better job prospects” or if I agree with “better teachers” — that’s sort of up for debate.

    Lastly, I also don’t feel like this cost is true, depending on your industry and the kid’s internal drive: “And finally, you’ve got to account for the cost of private tutors to make sure your kids don’t fall behind their private school counterparts.”

    As an example, I’m in the tech industry and you just reach a certain threshold of competence by the time *you finish university* and you’re good. When you look for a career, you generally aren’t looking for a career right out of high school — jobs only matter based on your university performance. Almost no job cares about your high school performance.

    And the argument of “better high school” = “better college” is also untrue (at least in the states). In my personal example, I went to a public school and was able to get multiple offers from various universities considered to be top 10 in the states.

    And here in the US, even if you don’t end up in a great college, you can actually do the following:
    1. Spend first 2 years in a crappy college, do well there.
    2. For your jr/senior years transfer to a more prestigious college.

    I know multiple people that make half a mil a year at Google (total comp) that actually didn’t do so hot in high school and only transferred to my university at their 3rd year and they’ve turned out well. In their case, they didn’t even have to waste as much money as me (i.e. they only paid 2 years for a prestigious public university as opposed to 4 years).

    But my anecdote above depends fairly heavily on 2 assumptions, so all of the things I’ve said could probably be taken with a large grain of salt:
    1) This is how I’ve seen it work in the US. Not sure if this works elsewhere like the UK.
    2) It assumes a large internal drive/ambition from the child. For example, most of my successful friends are self-motivated and have a deep desire to win at everything and are extremely competitive in everything. As a result, they didn’t really require any handholding or depended on the teacher’s ability to teach — we just looked at the homework and said “OK how do I get an A+ on this so I can get into a good high school, and then a good college, and then make money?” I have *no idea* if this trait is born into someone or if it is nurtured, but it seems to be a rare trait.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head – there is a stark difference between the UK and the US in this regard.

      Data shows that the vast majority of Oxbridge students come from private schools (and a small subset of private schools at that). And for whatever reasons, scrappy immigrants like you and me (I grew up across the pond and followed a very similar path to the one you are describing) are not as popular here as they are back home. Everyone wants to hear about my Ivy League MBA and Nobel prize-winning professors. No one cares that I put myself through high school and college working 40 hours a week.

      This is the other reason my thinking has evolved 180 degrees on private schools. When we moved here 10 years ago (post my MBA), I dismissed them outright. Five years in, I considered the option but didn’t find it was worth the money. And 10 years later, I spend £20k a year because I (i) see the value and (ii) am also making more money so it’s not a budget breaker.

  17. Pingback: Weekend reading: Padstow away - Monevator

  18. I would like to add that I think private schools simply support working parents. One local state near us suddenly decided that a regular 3pm finish was fine due to Covid. Another had a lottery system for after school clubs/care so you never knew if you’d need to hire a childminder for a term.

    When speaking to a lot of state school mothers it soon becomes apparent most of them don’t really work in corporate roles. That’s fine, if that’s what they choose, but I think the state system doesn’t encourage it. Also private means no need to run around filling in the gaps with extra enrichment activities.

    1. Interesting – our perspective on this one so far is mixed.

      Our private school offers some morning/afternoon clubs but not enough to fill up every day. Also, the half-term holidays are longer than at state schools, which creates a problem for childcare (as we only have 5 weeks of holiday which isn’t enough).

      Have a feeling next few years will involve a lot of running around!

  19. When it was decision time for our oldest we had to weigh up (i) substantial green playing fields surrounding the school vs small tarmac playground, (ii) small class size versus large, and (iii) subtle arrangement of classes versus bog standard.

    But, sod it, we sacrificed the first of each of those choices, went for the second, and moved him to the private school.

    I don’t think the private school had a profit motive, at least in the usual sense; it was a charitable trust not a corporate business.

    1. So we had a similar consideration re: profit motive. No way I’d send my kids to a private equity owned school, where IRR is the key determinant of all decisions.

      The school we ended up choosing is owned by a charitable trust as well, so has a long-term view. Our second choice was a family-owned school with a long history.

  20. Excellent article. My 6 year old has an assessment day at Manchester Grammar School next week and so this is very timely for me. Thank you. You forgot one very important calculation though.

    Using your calculation on opportunity cost, your son/daughter could use the funds to live on while funnelling the same sums into pensions and obtaining tax relief.

    Assume your son/daughter pays higher rate tax (40%) on earnings. The annual contribution limit is £40,000. That means he/she could (if earning enough) obtain 40% relief amounting to £16,000 per annum. If he/she earns enough by, say, 30 and works until 65, that would equate to an additional £560,000 in tax relief over 35 years. He/she could help a spouse do the same. Effortless maximum pension contributions for an entire career providing tax relief of £1,120,000. And this does not even take into account the benefit that could be made of employer contributions to pensions.

    And yet I still wrestle with the merits!

    1. That’s creative financial thinking at its best – really like the idea.

      But I’m 100% with you – somehow I just can’t base the decision on numbers alone when it comes to our children’s education (and the perceived impact on their future)

  21. We sent our kids to state primary and private secondary. It’s being funded by my parents and in my experience well over half the parents I know at the private school have a similar funding arrangement.

    Like you I can see both sides of the argument. My husband went to a comprehensive in a deprived area and I went to a private secondary school. From his group of contemporaries they are no less successful than mine so I’m not convinced it had a material difference in ultimate outcome.

    However it’s a bit like the debate on whether to pay off your mortgage once you have enough saved versus investing the money. The latter makes more sense financially but often people are drawn to the first choice than enables them to sleep better at night.

    1. That’s exactly it – it ultimately becomes a behavioural, not a financial decision. Funny how these things work.

      Very happy to hear about the group of folks in your husband’s school – gives me hope we still have some social mobility in this country!

  22. Serious problem
    Both wife and I went to private schools-got professional qualifications
    Went to work in a remote area in Scotland
    No private schools available but everyone went to the local comp
    Had 3 kids -all now professionals-teacher,doctor and lawyer-Russel Group Universities
    Much better rounded people than their parents having been schooled amongst the general population
    Know about real poverty and real wealth and how life actually is
    Interestingly all 3 have their kids now at state comprehensives albeit in good areas though 2 of them are very well off
    Life can be more difficult for kids later in life if they are educated in the one social group ie the clever and the well off!

    1. Interesting perspective, thank you. Very reassuring as well.

      Having gone through some tough state schools myself, I agree – the ability to relate to people from all walks of life can be priceless.

      And yet, many folks I know (including me, to a certain extent), end up with a bit of a chip on their shoulder / less confidence coming out of state schools. Unlike the US, where folks love rags-to-riches stories, it’s not that much of an advantage here in the UK.

      1. People in the UK love an underdog. Even the Tories seek ways to distract from all the Old Etonians in cabinet by trumpeting their diversity.

        I agree though, we suffer from the legacy of class and colonialism.

        I suspect many Americans (and British elites) suffer from a lack of confidence too – it’s just less acceptable to reveal it.

  23. @ Angie – The psychologist Robert Plomin has studied the Private vs State school question and concluded that the benefit disappears once you control for selection affects (i.e. cherry-picking bright pupils) and socio-economic background. He used UK data.

    Plomin talks about his findings as part of a wider ranging (and fascinating) discussion here:

    Plomin pointed out that the network effects may still make private school education worthwhile. BTW, I don’t think one study, or even several, can provide a definitive answer and clearly it’s a highly emotive decision.

    Anecdotally, a friend of mine who sends her child to private school marvels at the opportunities and facilities but worries about two kinds of pressure on her child:

    Academic pressure applied at primary school age i.e. loss of carefree childhood.
    Social pressure – she believes her child isn’t invited to some social events because her family isn’t as wealthy as peers.

    Anyway, thanks for a great article and interesting discussion as always BOF.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and the interesting link TA – have downloaded for my commute.

      I am much more worried about the first point you raise. Our daughter isn’t yet 5, and I spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon doing homework with her (we then had to make a video and upload to a special app)

      As far as the second point, there are a few billionaires / celebrities in school but mostly in the older years. In reception, it’s the new working class – i.e. the exhausted bankers and lawyers!

  24. #2 (Better teachers) is highly questionable. Of all the teachers I have ever met, working in state and private schools, none would make the claim that private school teachers are on average better than those who work in state schools.

    #4, (A More Supportive Environment) Doubtful. In my experience children in private schools who are not keeping end up having to employ private tutors, or be shown the door. In one instance I know of a child who was forced to repeat a year as a condition of keeping her place. Something that would never had happened in a state school. Her subsequent education and life after school was not happy. She did not gain sufficient qualifications to go to university and I am doubtful she would have been able to cope even if she had. A state school education, with supportive special needs assistance may well have been better for her.

    #5: Narrower Ability Range is often catered for by streaming in good state schools.

    #7: Admission To Better Universities “According to the Access to Advantage report published by the Sutton Trust, private school students are seven times more likely to secure a place at Oxford or Cambridge than students at non-selective state schools.” Surely I don’t need to point out the flaws in this? (selective/non-selective?)

    From our own experience, my wife went to a private school, I went to a state school (not a good one). Despite the quality of my school, we both attended a top UK university. For our kids, we were fortunate enough to live very close to, within the catchments area of, an outstanding state primary school, and it was a no-brainer to send them there. Secondary was more difficult. Our eldest secured offers from good private schools but also had an offer from an outstanding state school, which took a proportion selected by ability (various aptitude tests). Many of her friends went the private route, but in the end we decided on the state school. I cannot fully remember why, but the true costs, as you indicate, came into it. Also I think the journey. Our other 2 got into the state school on a sibling policy.

    All our kids went to their first choice of top universities and obtained first class degrees. 2 are currently doing Phd’s. Of the family’s we kept up with who sent their children private, none are doing any better. I have a sister-in-law who has similar aged kids who all went private, and I am sorry to say 2 of her kids have been utter disasters, one with serious drink/drugs issues. The other has a good job as a nurse, but I cannot see how the private school education was really of much benefit to her. She would very likely have ended up in the same position, but with a large amount of cash had the school fees been invested instead. Something she could definitely do with now.

    My thoughts are that kids who are academically able from supportive families will do well wherever they go. For kids not so able, private schools might be able to give them a leg up, getting them grades slightly better than they might have got had they gone to state schools, which could make a difference in the university they are able to attend. For kids that struggle academically, choice of school is really important. Over-tutoring to get them into a hothouse will most likely leave them very unhappy and not lead to a good outcome. No amount of effort is going to get them into a top university and it is that top university that is most likely to lead to high earnings. In this case, having realistic expectations for your kids and a huge pile of invested capital from the saved school fees might well be a better option.

    1. Thanks for your perspectives. To be very clear, I don’t disagree with any of the above, though not everyone has a great state school nearby which also influences the decision-making.

      My two cents here would be as follows:

      #1: While I agree with the ultimate conclusion (having the right expectations of your kids), it’s just so damn tough to gauge when they are four years old, isn’t it?

      #2: I would still worry that an “average” kid would get lost in a state school (not bad enough to get special attention, not good enough to get extra attention) whereby in a private school he or she could be nurtured to focus on whatever special talents they do have (chemistry / art / sports)

      Of course, having a few million in the bank by the time they are 40 can make up for a lot of shortcomings as you say!

  25. Having been to Oxford from a state school background, in a deprived area funnily enough, I defied the odds, the lucky outlier !

    Oddly as the underdog, you get through without any private tutoring and support, whilst the private school has extracted 100% of the potential from many of their students, they just about manage. The state school pupil without that assistance has got to the same point using about 75% of their ability, far less pressure on them.

    I would look more at life outcome for your children, maximising education and wealth does not always provide for a happy and fulfilling life,

    My Oxford education was an interesting experience but the academic study provided no useful improvement in my life outcome ( pure mathematics, I learnt enough by the age of 14 to cover all actual requirements of my career)

    Meeting and talking to smart people was valuable, the required studying was a distraction!

    1. Nice one – what line of work are you in if you don’t mind me asking? And do you think you would have been able to get the same job if you hadn’t graduated from Oxford?

  26. Hariseldon, I don’t think you are an outlier. As I previously mentioned, able kids will get through wherever they are put. I do think it is not quite so easy to breeze through these days in the way you and I did though. State schools have massively upped their game, making competition for top university places much fiercer than it used to be. Being able is not enough, kids must put the work in, more work than in my day. State schools upping their game has meant it is now much harder for less able kids at private schools to get to the top places. I suspect private schools still offer advantages through things like interview coaching and even nepotism, although universities are I believe trying to stamp that out.

    I have often thought that the way private school scholarships operate are antiquated. They tend to be offered to the brightest kids, but it is not the brightest kids who will benefit the most from scholarships, it is the kids in the middle. I guess private schools operate this way as it boosts their results.

    I agree somewhat with your view on outcomes and usefulness of degrees. Apart from those on vocational courses such as medicine, dentistry, engineering, veterinary science, most of what is learnt is not particularly useful. I did use the maths I learned in my career (mostly the probability and statistics), but that is unusual.

    Of the families I know who paid for private schooling I struggle to think of any of the kids who would not have ended up in the same jobs had they just gone to state schools. Biggest factors in the eventual career outcome IMHO are socio-economic background and parental support. I am sure that for most, if it comes down to either/or, a big wodge of cash would be far more useful than a private education.

    1. I ended up in an engineering field, mathematics was useful, as you’d expect, but you gained the “useful bits” very early on..

      The biggest takeaway from Oxford was confidence and appreciate your take on it.

  27. Just to pick up on a few threads and entangle them further…

    I’ve listened to an Ivy League academic describing the overwhelming admissions advantage accruing to children from rich families because:

    – They have the financial resources to hothouse their children with stellar private tuition on top of their private school eduction.

    – If that’s not enough, donations to the institution help grease the wheels. But even that is a competitive sport.

    Another – with pastoral responsibility at Harvard – described a mental health epidemic among recent intakes because of the intense pressure they heap upon themselves. 4 hours sleep, no breaks, no unproductive time allowed.

    I’ve long felt the cult of hyper-productivity and competition is leading us astray.

  28. Pingback: Second Home -

  29. Trying to first do no harm

    Thanks for the article and the great discussion that it triggered.
    Adding to the question marks: would private schools provide with “healthy”, encouraging peers over a more diverse state school environment? You may want to check the Freakonomics podcast episode about parenting. In a nutshell, it seems that peers provide the overwhelming influence on kids. Thus, choosing a school where peers may be the least dysfunctional as you can identify (and if you are focused exclusively on future earnings potential) with an overall good work ethic may be better than on academic rankings. Not that I have an answer to achieve that. But I had a good vibe from the local state primary—about the parents—so we went for that one…secondary, I’m sure we’ll ruminate again.
    What do you or any of the teachers that commented think—especially because as you said, if they are kids, it’s hard to know if they even want to be bankers or Prime Ministers, or go to Oxbridge over a “normal” university followed by a better postgraduate on whatever is more appropriate as an adult. I guess there are cliches on both paths: entitled, addictions, etc. vs gangs, mediocrity, etc.

    1. Banker On FIRE

      I honestly think that when it comes to a good state vs private school, we may be splitting hairs here – and the key determinant becomes the parent’s perception that they are doing everything they can for their kids, even if the impact is marginal.

      Very much agree with you on the peers / parents / overall vibe. There are a couple of incredibly posh schools we looked at and turned out for that very reason. It’s not “us” and we had no intention of even trying to fit in.

Leave a Reply