My story is proof that state schools are better than the private sector

The publication of the Key Stage 2 results of the tests taken by 11-year-olds this May has resulted in the customary “state school” bashing in the press. The Daily Mail claims that the brightest pupils are being failed by primary schools, while The Telegraph has pointed out that one in three pupils have not mastered the basics by the time they’ve left school. But the crucial fact to remember is that overall, standards have gone up massively since I started teaching in the 1990s. Standards have risen immensely since they were introduced, with 49% of pupils getting a level 4 (the expected level) for English in 1995, whereas this year 81% attained a Level 4 or above. Furthermore, achievement amongst the brightest pupils has risen dramatically, contrary to what you read in the Mail. In 1995, only 7% of pupils achieved a top Level 5 in English (above the expected level) whereas this year it was 29%.

I have to say that I’m delighted with the progress my son made at his local state primary school, Columbia Primary in Tower Hamlets; this May he achieved top levels in all his SATs — as did many other pupils, from all sorts of different backgrounds, in his class. He had a superb teacher who not only drilled the pupils in the basics, but most importantly made these subjects fun. In particular, he’s motivated to study Maths in a way that he never was when he went a private school. A few years ago, disappointed with the progress he was making at the private school he was attending, my wife and I pulled him out and put him in the local primary school. The standards of teaching at his private school were very low because the teachers liked to lecture to silent classes and not actively engage the children in learning.

He was tested when he entered the local primary school as “average” in the basic subjects; he’s now progressed to be well above the national average. My personal story is an illustration that the notion that private schools are better than state ones is a myth; on the whole, state school teachers are better trained and much better at motivating children than teachers in the private sector, many of whom are untrained and have little idea of how children learn.

I am particularly annoyed with the suggestion that state schools don’t stretch the brightest pupils. This just wasn’t the case with my own son and the other bright pupils at his school. He’s had nothing but constant stimulation at his local primary and within the borough generally; he’s participated in numerous clubs and the local music service, THAMES, where he has learnt the bassoon and played in the Borough orchestra. His reading skills are good because he’s constantly been pushed in class to read challenging texts.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories My books, The Last Day Of TermTags, , , , 12 Comments

12 thoughts on “My story is proof that state schools are better than the private sector”

  1. This is just one experience out of millions – so why do you bother generalising? Perhaps this local state school has an excellent English Department. Our local school has an excellent Maths department, and the children regularly achieve level 5. But the English teaching lacks focus and Children aren’t asked to learn spellings or apply punctuation, so many sentences written by my 9yr old don’t make sense. I despair, but I’m constantly told not to worry. I know what it comes down to really. He’s in a class of 30, he’s doing “fine”, he’s the one at the back – not being stretched.

    1. The Maths teaching at my local primary was excellent too. The Borough has made a big effort to improve the quality of numeracy and literacy lessons — and it’s paid off. I certainly think it’s worth talking to the teachers concerned about your worries about the English lessons; unlike in the private sector, state school teachers have legal obligations to respond to parents’ concerns. Yes, my story is is “one in millions”, but it’s backed up by the statistics. Dig behind the statistics in the private sector, and you see it’s not that great.

  2. So many upper- and middle- and even working-class parents are not fools for spending large amounts on ‘inferior’ education. They certainly get smaller classes for their money, and much else besides (e.g. higher quality canteen diet).
    If you really were a “researcher” then you certainly wouldn’t have used such a silly title as “My story is proof that … ” – because +your story+ is not “proof” of anything.

    1. Yes, I agree it’s not “proof” in any firm sense and I’m not submitting this personal story as part of my PhD. Perhaps personal proof. Unfortunately, there isn’t a huge amount of serious research into the achievements of private schools, but what research has been done indicates that teaching standards are generally quite poor.

      1. Oh dear: such vacuity and lack of rigour – doesn’t bode well for your research. What does “personal proof” mean? – seems to mean that your personal experience (*so far* – things could go horribly wrong, making you change your position on private education yet again) is ‘proof’ enough that you can ignore contradictory evidence. You want it both ways: your personal experience is not proof, but it is proof.
        You want it both ways *again*: there isn’t much research on achievements on private schools, but there is enough research (for you) to conclude that priv sch teaching standards are quite poor.

  3. Alas, your story merely demonstrates the superiority of the private sector, which allowed you to vote with your feet. Good luck trying to do the same with the state system.

      1. If you believe that the state is uniquely positioned to provide us with quality, choice, and value in a relatively complex service sector such as education, do you also believe that the state should provide us with all supermarkets, restaurants, media outlets, farms, manufacturers etc.? If not, why not? Why is the state better positioned to provide us with education over any other product or service?

      2. But why is it OK for there to be “poundsaver” supermarkets (e.g. Lidl) and “Harrods” supermarkets (e.g. Harrods)? Do you believe it’s not possible to buy good quality groceries in Lidl? Do you believe only people of a certain social class shop in Lidl (or indeed Harrods)?

        It should be incumbent upon the state to ensure that all its young citizens obtain a certain minimum level of education. I’m not entirely sure it should be incumbent upon the state to enforce someone’s idea of social integration upon the school system. Nor am I (as a product of the comprehensive system myself) convinced of any benefits this might actually offer to the individual or to society. Do you personally feel socially disadvantaged because you had a public school secondary education?

      3. oh, btw, one other point: you said that state sector offers plenty of choice. It cannot both offer choice and at the same time enforce (someone’s idea of) social integration.

  4. FG +hasn’t+ said that the state is uniquely/better positioned to do anything.

    Indeed, FG effectively hasn’t said anything at all. All he has done is recount his personal experience of one private school and one state school. This is in keeping with nature of his output generally – to talk a lot without actually saying/arguing anything.

    FG seems to want to suggest that education provided by the state is better than that provided by the private sector, but even he is aware that he’s in no position to +argue+ that.

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