With the morale of teachers in the state sector plunging towards an all-time low, some may be forgiven for casting a glance in the direction of the private school teaching job and wondering if the grass might be greener over there. In most cases the decision to leave teaching entirely is not taken lightly, and assessing the merits of a move into a private school teaching job often forms part of the decision-making process. Discussed below are four key areas to consider.
Teaching in the private sector involves finding peace with the concept of selective education. Your school will definitely not represent a microcosm of society as a whole – though perhaps the same can be said for those sought-after state schools in desirable catchment areas. At the very least, the majority of the children you encounter will have been selected on the basis of their family’s ability to pay the fees. At the other end of the selection spectrum, you might expect to be working with children from very wealthy backgrounds who have been cherry-picked according to their academic ability via an intensive entrance procedure.
Obviously in a fee-paying school you are far less likely to be battling the effects of economic and social deprivation in the classroom. It is a myth, though, that you will avoid having to deal with complex social and welfare issues at all. Peer pressure and bullying will arise amongst any group of children, whether socially and economically diverse or seemingly more homogeneous, and you may well find a higher incidence of children buckling under parental pressure to achieve academically or suffering from feelings of mediocrity because they are flying relatively low in a high-flying environment. You might not rank these issues alongside the needs of children struggling to overcome grinding poverty, but they are nevertheless real and often overwhelming problems for the children experiencing them. So if you believe that every child matters, you may also believe that these children deserve to be taught by skilled teachers who can sensitively help them to handle such issues in order to become functional and responsible members of a diverse society. You just have to decide whether that teacher might be you.
Class sizes in the private sector will almost invariably be smaller than in state schools: it’s a key selling point for most independent schools. So there will be fewer books to mark and fewer reports to write.
However, it does not follow that you can therefore expect the range between the highest and lowest levels of ability in a class in an independent school to be narrower. This will depend very much on the size of the school, the basis on which children are selected and the attitude towards streaming within the school. An independent school selling itself on the basis of its pastoral care or its SEND facilities may attract children who have been struggling to meet expectations in a state school, so there will be the same need to differentiate lessons and liaise with SEND experts as in the state sector. However, you may find that you are trying to do this without the ongoing help of a teaching assistant, as independent school budgets often won’t run to the luxury of having both smaller classes and assistants.
In terms of the administrative burden, you may find some of the benefits of having smaller class sizes are offset by having to produce written reports or attend parents’ evenings more frequently.
In theory, independent schools are free to unshackle themselves from the strictures of the National Curriculum and its concomitant testing regime. In reality, relatively few independent schools choose to plough an entirely new furrow, with many choosing at least to pay lip-service to both the National Curriculum and the SATs tests. Reasons for this include the need for the performances of independent schools to be easily measurable against those of state schools, so that parents can gauge whether they are gaining sufficient “value added” from the fees. So in an independent school you may be expected to teach the National Curriculum “with bells on”, or to prepare children for both SATs and for other standardised tests that the school may deem to be better indicators of the children’s performance at a given stage.
On the plus side, for subjects like the sciences and geography, far greater resources may be available for practical work and field trips, contributing significantly to levels of job satisfaction for the subject-specialist.
While the teaching unions have effectively relegated certain activities (lunch duties and after-school clubs, for example) to the “optional” bench for teachers in state schools, these often remain firmly on the timetable for teachers in independent schools. Open days at weekends, the fact that the ten percent PPA time isn’t statutory in independent schools (unless the teachers’ contracts entitle them to the conditions set out in the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document) and perhaps a longer timetabled school day are all additional demands on teachers’ time in the private sector that may not be immediately obvious.
Management and union support
It’s an all-too familiar scenario: a child has complained about you at home and their parent has then come in to discuss the situation. The parent refuses to see your point of view and escalates matters by going to see the head. Fairly or otherwise, you find yourself having to justify your actions.
In an independent school, such unpleasant circumstances may become further complicated by the fact that the head is often treading a fine line between supporting a member of staff and maintaining a positive relationship with a parent who also happens to be a paying customer – a paying customer who may choose to take their business elsewhere, thus denting the school’s finances, and perhaps its reputation with other potential customers, in the process. Some teachers may find it difficult to adjust to such an ethos where the customer always appears to be right.
And it is also worth bearing in mind that although it may still be worth joining a union for the many services they offer to members, historically the power of the unions has been limited within the private sector, so you may find there are certain causes that the union will be reluctant to take up on your behalf.
Overall, there still seems to be a feeling that life for a teacher within the independent sector is considerably easier – for example, the consensus appears to be that behaviour management is far less demanding in the average independent school – and this may tempt some to give it a go before deciding whether to leave teaching completely. Whether that decision is for you may be a matter for your political conscience and, perhaps, for some soul-searching about what being a teacher really means to you.