Why pay for one and not the other?

The Sunday Times, October 21, 2007

My wife Karen and I had been concerned for a while about our youngest son’s progress. Having relocated to Cornwall, Elliot, 9, had been in a new primary school for eight months. The school ticked all the right boxes - good inspection report, strong headmaster, tranquil location - but something wasn’t right. Elliot would often stand forlornly on the periphery of the playground. If he wasn’t withdrawn and painfully self-conscious, he’d be over the top and edgy. He simply wasn’t settled. He wouldn’t get to sleep until gone 11pm, and when he did sleep it’d be upside down or even on the floor, as if to mirror his daytime disquiet.

And then there was his language. Elliot began uttering words that none of his family use. Many children swear, but they tend to do so discreetly, rather than indiscriminately. For Elliot, swearing seemed to have become a default mechanism. It was impossible not to notice this - and just as impossible to isolate its cause. But the tipping point came at the end of the summer holidays, when Elliot used the “c” word. That was it. It was time for a radical solution.

The next week, when Elliot should have been back at his primary school, he instead spent a trial day at the fee-paying Bolitho school in Penzance. Since moving to west Cornwall nearly a year ago, we had heard nothing but plaudits for Bolitho. It offers the international baccalaureate in its sixth form and, with just 350 pupils, offers classes with an average of 12 children in the main school. Was Bolitho the answer for Elliot?

Perhaps - but what of his brother, Harry, 12? Harry had spent most of the summer surfing with his friends, basking in the wake of an excellent report from Cape Cornwall school. Harry had only been at this small state secondary school in St Just, in the far west of Cornwall, for a short time, but had already made an impression. He was, to quote his year’s tutor, “a great lad with bags of ability - he’s doing brilliantly”. But however well Harry was doing, we were not sure it was right to leave him in the state sector at the same time as finding the money to educate Elliot privately.

More to the point, we were not sure if we had the money for Elliot, let alone his brother, too. I’m a writer, Karen is an artist: neither of us works in fields replete with financial security. We don’t have any debts, but we don’t have any savings, either. In addition, albeit that neither of us is overtly political, our marriage had always been underpinned by a tacit understanding that we’d educate our children in the state sector. Now here we were, contemplating putting one child into a well-regarded local fee-paying school. Should we do it?

To answer that question, Elliot needed to complete his trial day - and we needed to be as honest as possible about our children. They are chalk and cheese. Harry is a confident boy who loves life at the 450-pupil Cape Cornwall school, a place which has fostered his natural talents in art and surfing. His ambition is to be a professional surfer, and at Cape, surfing is encouraged possibly more than any other sport. Fortunately, Harry is aware that study is as important as surfing, but the bottom line is that he is one of those boys who would most likely be fine, wherever he is. As things stand he is in the right school for his character and ambitions.

His brother is a more complex character. Elliot has a rare and fine mind but is not as confident as Harry. He can be impressionable and needs a lot of intellectual stimuli. It wasn’t that Elliot’s primary school was failing him - far from it - but more that we might be by leaving him there. He’s a boy who needs a nurturing environment in which he can be pushed and challenged; if he’s not, he’s likely first to tread water, then to sink. To us, his new-found poor language appeared evidence of this.

We arranged an appointment with David Dobson, the headmaster of Bolitho, a man who had also been the head for eight years at a 1,200 pupil comprehensive school. Dobson’s experience of both sectors enables him to speak with authority on the benefits of small classes and individual care. “At my previous school my last GCSE group had 32 pupils; here I teach a GCSE group of 10.”

This was music to our ears, but the decisive factor was the smile on Elliot’s face at the end of his trial day. He looked enthralled by his new environment, proud that he had coped - and happy. We felt that we had to do the best for him, arranged a remortgage and signed on the dotted line, pragmatism prevailing over ideology.

Six weeks later and Elliot is a different child. He relishes the academic challenges of Bolitho, sleeps soundly and is coming into his own. He has played football, been on school outings, had a day of lessons on the beach and tried his hand at archery. Meanwhile Harry continues to enjoy life at Cape Cornwall, a school that, according to its headmaster, Robin Knee-bone, “offers, at its best, a wonderful educative environment in a beautiful area. We’re very strong in art and music and encourage an outward-looking curiosity about the world”.

Time will tell whether we have done the right thing. For now, one boy is blossoming in the private sector, the other is doing well in a state school. Our thinking right now could be best summed up as: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.