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What's the difference between private and state schools?

Updated: May 8, 2021

Choosing the right school for your child can be a nightmare, especially choosing between the private and state sectors. There are some obvious differences between them, which we will go over later in the article. However, first, we'd like to establish their various purposes. And knowing that will help us understand the education system in the UK a little better. Then, we’ll weigh up the pros and cons of each to help you make the right decision for your child!

Firstly, what do we mean by 'purposes'?

Well, in a nutshell, it’s to do with what they aim to achieve. Throughout the 20th century, the main purpose of government funded state (secondary) schools was to prepare children to be productive members of society. “Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic”, as the saying goes.

Conversely, fee-paying schools’ main aim was (and still is) to prepare their pupils for further education – whether that’s university, the military, or some type of professional service (finance, law, medicine etc).

Thankfully, this is now changing, as state schools prepare their pupils for university, though some schools are better equipped than others.

OK – now we’ve understood this, let’s take a deeper dive into the different types of state and private schools to understand some of the practical differences.

The State School System

1. Comprehensive schools

Comprehensive schools make up 90% of the schools in the UK, and entry is based on where you live (called catchment areas), rather than academic (or other) admissions criteria. These schools are funded by the local education authority (a part of the local council you live in), and vary greatly in terms of quality. The curriculum is highly regulated, and strictly adheres to the National Curriculum. If you’re interested in learning more about it, here’s a link:

2. Academies

Unlike comprehensives, academies are funded directly by the government, which means that they aren’t under the supervision of the local education authority. They have more freedom in what they can teach, although still, they must adhere to the National Curriculum. Some academies are selective entry, and some are not.

3. Grammar Schools

Grammar schools have existed since medieval times and initially established to teach in Latin. More recently though (over the last 60 or 70 years), they’ve changed to become academic powerhouses. Unlike regular state secondaries, they are selective schools that have competitive entry at 11+ (year 7). The 11+ entrance exams are very similar to those of private schools, where children are tested in English, Maths, Verbal and Non-verbal reasoning.

Due to the change in government policies over the years, some grammar schools have become fully private, whilst others have become non-selective secondary schools (but still retain ‘Grammar’ in their names). Now, there are just over 160 grammar schools in the UK, often more competitive than many fee-paying schools.

4. College & Sixth Form

Not all children continue in education after their GCSEs (end of year 11). For those who do, colleges and sixth form are post GCSE schools for Year 12 and 13 pupils, with a focus on A-levels, and university preparation. Again, the quality of school, and level of support provided, varies greatly from school to school.

Now that we’ve understood the basics of the state system, let’s look at the private sector before we jump into the pros and cons of each.

The Private school sector

The terms private and independent schools are used interchangeably. They are both fee-paying schools that have selective entry. However, there is a difference: a private school is any school that is not reliant on the government for funding (ie charges school fees), whereas an Independent school is a type of private school, but one that is overseen by a board of governors or trustees. Other types of private schools may be run by a company, or an individual owner, without a governing body.

1. Public Schools

A somewhat confusing term, as historically these are the most prestigious boys’ private (usually boarding) schools. The term refers to the fact that a small group of boys’ schools were given independence from the Crown, government, or church, and instead were run by a board of governors. Now, there are hundreds of public schools, including mixed and girls’ schools.

The original public schools were Charterhouse, Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, and Westminster.

2. Pre-prep and prep schools

Pre-prep schools are private primary schools for children aged 3 to 7, and prep schools are private primary schools for children aged 8 to 13. Their main purpose is to prepare their pupils for senior schools at either 11+ or 13+.

That’s a lot to digest, but it’s important to understand the different types of schools so you know which one is most suited to your child.

So, what are the main differences between the private and state sectors?

1. Fees

We’ll mention the most obvious one first – school fees. Private day schools can range from £10,000 a year up to £25,000 a year. Boarding schools on the other hand are almost twice as expensive, ranging from between £30,000 up to £45,000.

Many schools offer some financial assistance, often in the form of scholarships and bursaries. Some schools are even “needs blind” – meaning that if you get a place, and can’t afford the school fees, the school will cover all related expenses.

Don’t be put off immediately, do some research, and find out what’s right for you! You may well be able to have your cake and eat it.

2. Academics

Grammar schools and private schools tend to be competitive, and deliver better exam results (and therefore more university places) than regular state schools. However, if you are fortunate enough to live in the right area, there are also some excellent state schools.

In the early years, there’s no difference in the quality of education. Given the fees involved, sticking to the state sector until 11+ or 13+ is a great option – a specific action plan and an after-school teacher (like what we do at One School) will bridge any gap and help in preparation for senior school entrance exams.

By senior school, there is a noticeable academic gap between pupils at comprehensive schools, and those at grammar or private schools. A startling statistic is that 60% of Oxbridge students are from private or grammar schools, even though they only make up 10% of all the schools in the UK.

Depending on your goal, metrics like GCSE results, A-level results, and university destinations can be a great way to measure the academic rigour of a school.

3. Class Size

Private schools have class sizes of between 10 – 20, whilst state schools have class sizes of 20 – 35, depending on the resources available to the school. It goes without saying - smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more time and attention to pupils, thereby allowing progress more quickly.

4. Co-curricular

It’s no secret that private schools pride themselves on their co-curricular activities and facilities. From art and drama, to sport and music, private schools will cater to a wide range of interests. Though exam results are important, they will often refer to preparing their pupils to become well-rounded individuals.

Though state schools offer some activities, the onus will be on you, as the parents, to find outlets for your child to pursue their interests. Thankfully, these days it’s easy to find after-school clubs that can match and often exceed what many private schools provide – just do a simple google search!

5. University applications

Given that almost any office job now requires a degree, more and more pupils are applying for university places. Private schools do offer a much better support system – from the teachers helping with personal statements, to a complete understanding of the application process, (especially for Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities).

The state sector is catching up quickly, and there’s a growing number of services that help pupils prepare their applications, and there are some excellent sixth form colleges that deliver exceptional results (check out Brampton Manor Academy! –


Choosing the right school is a nerve-wracking exercise – and if you have the financial means, a good private school often will be able to offer far more to its pupils. They are usually selective at entry, and often have better resources - academic outcomes better than a typical state school are to be expected.

There are excellent government-funded schools, especially grammar schools and sixth form academies, that provide an excellent education. And, given the plethora of after school activities and clubs now available in all parts of the country, you can find almost anything to support your child’s interests. Additionally, there are also a host of services that can fulfil any academic shortcomings (like some of the services we provide at One School), and any necessary additional support.

What’s most important, no matter whether you choose private or state, is finding the right school for your child.

If you need help, or have any questions, feel free to ask us in the comments below, or reach out to us directly.

Good luck!

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