I had to pull my children out of £38,000-a-year private school

I had to pull my children out of £38,000-a-year private school because of the soaring cost of living… It’s been a nightmare finding a good state school

  • Rosie Whitelock’s daughter had to wait two and a half months before she could take up a place in a state school
  • READ MORE: Interactive map reveals areas in England where as much as a QUARTER of pupils miss out

Memories of taking each of my children for their first day in reception at a private prep school in Cambridgeshire are incredibly special.

Three years apart, the experiences were remarkably similar. Their warm little hands clasped in mine, eyes filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation in equal measure, my own heart thumping at the thought of them taking such a big step into the world.

I found comfort in the fact that the school felt completely right for them and I had no doubt I’d be dropping them off there every morning until they left the attached private senior school within the same grounds at the age of 18.

In fact, knowing they could stay there with familiar friends, teachers and surroundings until they’d sat their A-levels 14 years later without the upheaval of having to change schools when they reached secondary age was one of many compelling reasons why my husband Carl and I chose it for them. 

We also loved the wide range of sports on offer as they got older, and the small class sizes, which were capped at 15 for children aged five to seven, as opposed to 30 in state schools. What parent wouldn’t?

Right decision: Rosie Whitelock and husband Carl decided to take their two children out of private school when they were told that the fees would go up again in autumn 2023 (children posed by models)

Why then, 11 years on, have we recently taken our daughter Taylor, now 15, and son Alfie, 12, out of the school, turning our backs on private education in favour of the state equivalent we once shunned?

The reasons are many — I’ll come on to those – but above all we simply can’t justify the rocketing fees, which have gone up 23 per cent since 2022.

Then, we paid £5,214 per child, per term — a total of £31,284 per year for both kids.

Earlier this year we received notification that this figure would rise to £6,448 per child, per term, in autumn 2023, meaning we’d be forking out £38,688 every year — £7,404 more than in recent years.

Had we kept Taylor and Alfie in their private school until they were 18, this rise would equate to more than £33,000.

When our children first started at the school, as owners of a successful printing company with global clients, we felt our fortunate financial position meant we would always be able to afford the fees. 

But that extra 23 per cent is a colossal amount of money, on top of the soaring cost of living.

We’re not alone in re-thinking. With the cost of private education rising by an average of 19 per cent for the next academic year — the highest rise in decades as schools pass on increases in energy, food and salary bills — more and more parents are having to pull their children out of the private sector and fight to get them into a state school.

And if a Labour government wins the next election, the sharp-elbowed battle for the best state sector places is set to get even more fierce. 

Labour is looking at abolishing private schools’ VAT exemption sending fees skyrocketing by a further (and, for many, simply not possible) 20 per cent.

Both now in our late 30s, my husband and I are feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis at home and within our business.

The fixed-rate mortgage on our five-bed detached house in Cambridgeshire recently came to an end and we are now tied into a further two-year deal but with repayments up by a staggering 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, our council tax has risen by £1,200 a year and our domestic energy bills at home were around £750 per month during the past winter — two-thirds more than the previous year. 

While the rising fees posed a significant problem, Rosie had also become concerned with how the private school that her children attended was dealing with antisocial behaviour and vaping amongst pupils (children posed by models)

The weekly shop that once cost around £100 per week now regularly comes in at over £150.

Our business was hit hard during Covid and we’re only just emerging from that, while facing similarly eye-watering energy costs at our company premises near Peterborough where we employ 65 people. 

Even the price of the paper we buy has almost doubled.

Add to this the whopping rise in school fees, and there was nothing left over for the little extras that make life fun. 

I don’t mean luxuries such as foreign holidays, but family day trips to London to watch a show, or meals out.

The weight of all this added financial pressure was causing serious worry to Carl and me. 

We worked out that if we kept the children in private school, we’d need to borrow money against our home to cover the increase in fees.

Frankly, it forced us to take a more forensic look at the children’s education and school environment too. 

We sat down and were brutally honest with ourselves about various issues that had cropped up in the last year or so. 

They included fights and vaping among some of the children — thankfully not mine — and kids posting videos on social media during lessons when they were supposed to be focused on learning.

It seemed to me these sorts of behavioural issues, which we’d naively associated with state schools rather than private, were either not being addressed at all or not in an effective manner.

Over the course of three months, at the end of last year and the beginning of this, Carl and I weighed up the differences between the quality of teaching, the influences of other children and the general environment of their private secondary school versus the cost.

We came to the conclusion that it was no longer worth the money, and certainly not in the context of the astronomical fees. 

Our minds made up, one dark winter’s evening last January we sat at the kitchen table and broke the news to Taylor and Alfie.

‘We’re going to move you — we’re no longer happy with the school and we can’t really afford the escalating fees,’ we gently revealed, adding that they’d be leaving their school at the end of March when the term ended for the Easter holidays.

Neither Rosie nor her husband expected it to be so difficult to find good state schools for 12-year-old Alfie and 15-year-old Taylor (children posed by models)

Understandably, they were both upset, but because they’re older we were able to explain our frustrations with the school so they understood our decision.

Taylor’s immediate response was, ‘Are we poor?’ to which I replied that no, we’re not, but we’re having to tighten our belts like most other families. 

She loves school and is academic, so as well as being worried about leaving her friends behind, she was concerned that changing schools and education sectors might affect her GCSE grades when she sits her exams next summer.

Alfie’s main concerns were whether he’d fit in at a state school with hundreds more pupils than he was used to. 

He’s dyslexic and has had phenomenal special educational needs support in his private school.

But those sorts of worries were quickly overshadowed by another, as we discovered how fiercely contested places in state schools are.

The latest figures show a stiff increase in applications this year, with one in five children not getting their first choice of school — statistics that make me wonder whether many more parents have decided to give up crippling private school places like us.

In the end we were lucky — for Alfie. I began the process of applying at the start of last February and he got a place in Year Seven at a state secondary school seven miles away, starting there straight after the Easter holidays in April. 

But there was no place for Taylor in Year Ten at that school: it was full, and since it’s out of our catchment area we weren’t allowed to appeal.

Of the two schools in our catchment area, one has a terrible reputation so we discounted it immediately, while the other was fully subscribed for Taylor’s year group, meaning we’ve had to go through a lengthy appeals process on the grounds that it would be ‘detrimental to her education’ if she she wasn’t given a place. 

We felt only that school could offer the combination of subjects Taylor was already taking for her GCSEs.

As you can imagine, it’s been incredibly stressful, not least for Taylor who has been bored out of her mind at home these past two and a half months and desperate to resume studying. 

She’s also a talented netball player and on a pathway with the England development programme, so it’s important for her to be in a school with a strong emphasis on sport where she’ll be able to continue with a GCSE in PE.

Thankfully, we heard a few weeks ago that our appeal had been successful and Taylor has finally started there. But I won’t lie, it’s been a nightmare and she’s missed a half term’s worth of vital schooling.

Mercifully, her new teachers have assured us that because the school has four weeks’ less holiday in the summer than her private school — the more you pay, the less they go! — she’ll catch up with the missed studies then.

On the plus side, having been secretly concerned whether Alfie would settle, he’s loving his new school and has matured so much already. 

For the first time, he’s had to get public transport to and from school (I drove them to their private school) and has learned how to navigate a bigger campus too — there are over 900 pupils and more than 30 to a class.

Our departure from private education could easily have made good fodder for gossip at the old school gates because whatever people like to believe, there is a stigma attached to bowing out of fee-paying education.

But I was never part of the playground mum set and keeping myself to myself at school means we’re perhaps of less interest to others. 

Parents have been outwardly respectful and supportive of our decision, with some admitting on the quiet that they are also stretched by the rising fees.

When my children told their friends they were leaving, they both said it was because my husband and I were no longer happy with the school. 

They knew that this was only part of the reason but chose not to mention that the financial burden of the fees was a major factor.

I hadn’t suggested this to them, but they’re smart enough to realise that bringing money into their explanations could have led to gossip. 

But despite the anxieties and the long delay in securing a new school place for Taylor, Carl and I already feel relief in the financial pressures we’ve been under at home and work.

Most importantly, my children seem happy.

Because places at good state schools are so fiercely contested, Taylor, who will be sitting her GCSEs next summer, had to wait two and a half months before she could resume her studies after leaving private school (children posed by models)

Personally, I hope changing schools will prove to be a great character-building exercise for them both. 

Although we once loved the idea of them staying in one environment from the age of four to 18, now I can see that this current and unplanned period of change is teaching them how to adapt to new people and places. 

However, while I’m not aware of any snobbery about our move from parents, kids or teachers at Alfie’s new school, I do worry whether they — or anyone at Taylor’s school — will think ‘oh, you used to be at that private school so why are you here, is it because you can’t afford it?’ 

Not that it really matters what anyone else thinks, of course. 

Ultimately, I do understand that private schools are businesses and have the same rising energy costs to manage as the rest of us.

But when my children’s old school was forced to close during the pandemic there was no offer of a reduction in fees for parents, despite the fact they’d have been using a fraction of the energy and resources then, so the sharp increase in fees this year felt like a double kick in the teeth. 

A few days ago, I asked Taylor and Alfie if they’d want to go back to private school if we won the Lottery. Both of them said they wouldn’t, although they couldn’t put their fingers on why.

It was all I needed to hear to know that removing them from fee-paying education and putting them into state schools was the right decision, not least for our bank balance. 

And yet I’m also well aware of our luck in getting into those state schools.

Most are creaking at the seams, and will only get fuller as the influx from the private system, inevitable in my view, picks up pace.

  • Interview: Sadie Nicholas

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