Private or public schools: Where would you send your kids?

private or public schools
Source: Stephane De Sakutin / AFP

Education is the compass that guides us through life, shaping our future and opening doors to opportunities. 

As parents and students, the journey of selecting the right educational path can be daunting, akin to standing at a crossroads with diverging paths. 

Two prominent choices stand before them: private or public schools.

Data from the National Centre for Education Statistics notes that public schools in the US attract more students than their private counterparts

As of 2019, 50.8 million students attended public school, but private school enrollment in the fall of 2019 was 4.7 million, down from 5.7 million in 2017.

I personally attended a private international school in Malaysia and found the experience quite engaging.

One of the highlights was never having to take any English tests such as IELTS or TOEFL when I applied to universities abroad. 

This was an additional boon since I hoped to pursue English Literature in the UK, so having a British education background might have given me a leg-up in the admission process

While the British curriculum prepared me for the culture of the UK when I went to further my studies, the downside was I missed out on having a better grasp of our local language, Malay. My skill upon graduation was pretty basic. 

Even with myself as an example, it is clear that there are pros and cons when exploring private or public schools. 

It truly comes down to the individual and what they hope to do in the future. 

“The individual needs of the child should shape the choice for parents,” says Myra McGovern, spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools


private or public schools

All schools in Finland are publicly funded, so parents do not have to decide between private or public schools. Source: AFP

Private or public schools? Not a question for the Finns

It is important to note that this divide, prominent in countries like the US and UK, is not found in all nations. 

In Finland, for instance, all schools are publicly funded. The individuals in government agencies who run their schools are educators themselves. 

All schools also have the same national goals and draw from the same selection of university-trained educators.

“Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” says Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Impressively, 93% of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools. This number is 17.5% higher than the US, yet the Scandinavian country spends 30% less per student than the US. 


Private or public schools: What are the real differences?

In many other countries, choosing between private or public schools is tricky because there are massive distinctions between them.  

Private schools are characterised by diverse educational philosophies, ranging from Montessori to religious-based approaches. 

Whether secular or faith-based, these institutions tend to have greater flexibility in shaping their curriculum, allowing them to cater to specific educational philosophies.

Private schools often tout smaller class sizes, personalised attention, and a focus on individualised learning. 

This smaller student-teacher ratio can foster a close-knit learning environment where educators have the opportunity to tailor their teaching to individual needs.

This personalised approach is often a key selling point for private institutions.

Public schools may have larger class sizes due to budget constraints and the sheer volume of students they serve. 

This can sometimes result in less personalised attention. However, many public schools are working diligently to address this issue through innovative teaching methods and support systems.

Public schools are committed to providing free and accessible education to all as well, irrespective of economic background or beliefs. 

They follow a standardised curriculum designed by the government, promoting a consistent educational experience nationwide. 

These schools emphasise inclusivity and diversity, aiming to prepare students for the broader spectrum of society.

You would think that this was all you need to know about private or public schools, but there’s still much that separates them. 

private or public schools

Diversity is another factor to consider when deciding between private or public schools. Source: AFP

Private or public schools: Greater differences than you thought

Private schools may have a more homogenous student population, particularly in terms of socioeconomic status. 

However, they often promote diversity through scholarships and actively recruit students from diverse backgrounds. 

Faith-based private schools, for instance, can provide a strong sense of community but may lack religious diversity. 

Public schools, on the other hand, inherently reflect the diversity of their communities. 

They provide students with exposure to a wide array of backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures. 

This diversity can enhance students’ ability to navigate an increasingly interconnected global society.

In the US, racial diversity between private or public schools was rather different. 

According to US News & World Report, from 2019 to 2020, 66% of students attending private schools were white, 12% were Hispanic, 9% Black and 7% Asian. 

It adds that 45% of students attending public schools were white, according to NCES data from the fall of 2021. Hispanic students comprised 28%, 15% were back, 5% Asian and 7% were students from biracial, Pacific Islander or Native American backgrounds.

private or public schools

Many famous people, like Barack Obama, have had a private education. Source: AFP

More money, less problems?

Private schools are funded primarily through tuition fees, donations, and endowments. 

These fees can vary widely, with some elite institutions commanding exorbitant fees. 

However, private schools often argue that the cost reflects the quality of education, smaller class sizes, and access to specialised programmes that can enhance a student’s educational journey.

Public schools, funded by taxpayers, offer free education to residents of their respective districts. 

This makes public schools accessible to a more diverse socioeconomic range. 

While public schools may have fewer resources compared to some private counterparts, they strive to provide a well-rounded education without financial constraints.

According to The Guardian, in the UK, only 6% of the school population attends private schools. Income plays a large role in where students go.

For families with an income of 300,000 pounds and more, six out of every 10 children are at private school. 

This is because of the school’s annual fees. Eton’s basic fee between 2018–19 was 40,668 pounds. Harrow costs 40,050 pounds, and Winchester was 39,912 pounds. 

Compared to the rest of the world, the US included, the UK’s private education fees are staggering. 

Places like Germany are much lower and often state-funded with regulated fees. Private schools in France are mostly Catholic, with low fees, and the state pays the teachers. 

When deciding between private or public schools in places like the US or UK, is it worth paying the higher fees?

Robert Pianta, professor of early childhood education and founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia, has some insight.

“When you compare children who went to private school (for an average of six years) with those who only went to public school, any apparent benefits of private schooling – higher test scores, for example – are entirely attributable to parents’ education and income,” he says. 

“The fact that they went to private school does not account for any differences we might see.”

private or public schools

US public schools generally require their teachers to hold state certification and licensure, while private schools are more flexible. Source: Christophe Archambault/ AFP

Private or public schools: What do teachers think?

The responses and experiences of educators are also a mixed bag. 

Here are some testimonials reported by We Are Teachers:

  • “I worked in a private school for five years. Throughout my time there, I saw the administration deny admission to students with special needs.”
  • “Public schools generally pay better and are way more likely to be unionised. You have way stronger job protection and generally better benefits.”
  • “I have been teaching in a Catholic school. We follow the Common Core Standards. Our students do take standardised tests every year, but there’s significantly less pressure on the students and teachers as compared to our public school districts.”
  • “Made less pay, no benefits, and an extremely difficult year. No subs for teachers or special teachers. Very disorganised. Cash flow problems due to lack of enrollment. I wouldn’t do private again. Loved charter schools, though!”

The educators who stand at the frontlines of our educational institutions play a pivotal role in shaping students’ futures. 

Teaching requirements for private and public schools vary, reflecting the distinct characteristics of each sector.

For example, US public schools generally require their teachers to hold state certification and licensure. These certifications usually involve completing a teacher preparation programme, passing exams, and meeting specific classroom experience requirements.

While many private schools prefer teachers with state certification, they often have more flexibility in hiring educators without formal teaching credentials. 

This flexibility allows private institutions to bring in experts from various fields, such as artists, scientists, or industry professionals, to provide a unique perspective on education.

Private schools often prioritise hiring teachers with specialised expertise in certain subjects or teaching methodologies. A private school with a strong focus on STEM education may seek out instructors with advanced degrees in science or engineering.

private or public schools

Choosing the right school comes down to really considering what your child’s needs are. Source: Stephane De Sakutin / AFP

Private or public schools: How to choose the right school

The first step when trying to decide between private or public schools is to think about your child’s interests. 

What would work for them: Traditional with lots of structure or progressive with more freedom. 

Other than that, research shows that the main two things to look at that make a school experience is the quality of the teachers and the principal. 

Here are some questions to consider when you scope out educators and school leaders at different institutions:

  • What is their level of experience?
  • Do the staff seem cohesive? Do they agree on a common vision for the school?
  • Especially for preschool and early grades, are the teachers nurturing? 
  • Are they talking with students or at them?
  •  Do children seem joyful?

Another important aspect to consider is the school’s curriculum. In New York, for instance, there is a massive revamp of the education system. Check the school’s plans and see if the new curriculum suits your child’s needs. 

Lastly, while accreditations and reputation matter to an extent, don’t let that be the only deciding factor for your chosen school.

Elissa Stein, a consultant on high school admissions, says, “If you know that one kind of environment isn’t right for your child or wouldn’t be beneficial, then take some schools off your list. Even if they have amazing reputations.”