How to give your children an elite private education (without the cost)


Let’s talk education.

The Escape Artist went to Eton, the school that has educated more Prime Ministers and heads of state than any other school in Britain.

And, when I say I went there, I mean that outside term time, the school is open to visitors so The Escape Artist paid a few quid to take a look around.

I was curious to see whether I could learn anything from the school without paying £37,000 per child, per year (£70k pre tax income for higher rate taxpayers) to send my 3 kids there?

So I’ve studied the pros and cons of an Eton education.

 Is The Escape Artist going to share these lessons with you? Is the Pope catholic? Of course he is!

So here’s the thing: you don’t need to spend all that money to raise children that turn out healthy, happy and rich.

The Escape Artist has noticed that people want the best for their children. This is natural and a wonderful thing. But sadly, for some high performing people, wanting the best for their child can turn into Dr Evil’s Mini-Me Syndrome.  This is just one of Dr Evil’s Money Mindset Mistakes.

Dr Evil’s Mini-Me Syndrome starts off harmlessly enough.  You want you child to achieve the same success that you’ve achieved…or more.  You want them to look similar, dress similar and move in similar social circles to you.

You want to give them the best start in life, the best education and help them destroy take their place in the world.

This is all well and good but private education does not come cheap. Given the cost, we should take a long, hard look at why people choose private education.  Here are some of the most common reasons given:

  • Knowledge
  • Teachers
  • Exam success
  • Future earnings
  • Cold showers
  • Diet
  • Games and exercise
  • Dormitory life
  • Social skills

1) Knowledge

Eton College was founded in 1440.   Back then, private schools were the only schools. Knowledge and information (books) were rare, precious and expensive.

Then the printing press was invented and books became cheaper and cheaper…to the point where they are now free (libraries) or essentially free (used on Amazon).

Reading the right books is the ultimate lifehack. You can get more value from reading and internalising a short list of life changing books than you can from any school or college course. The greatest gift you can give your child is reading to them when they are younger.

Now we have the internet and so the best education is now available to everyone who can read and wants to learn (this is now the limiting factor)…and its free. For examples, check out The Khan Academy or this list of 1,200 free courses from top universities.

2) Teachers

As far as I can see, the standard of teaching in state schools has improved significantly since the 1970s when The Escape Artist went to a state comprehensive school.

If you think standards are lax now, you should have seen Britain in the 1970s. Honestly, everything was shite. The cars, the food, the customer service, the internet. Everything.

Its true that, on average, teachers in the private sector get paid better than teachers in the state sector.  And its possible (although not certain) that translates into better teaching in the private sector.

But your child doesn’t get taught by a national average. They get taught by an actual person. And if a poor teacher is teaching your child in a state school, you can go and see the head teacher. Don’t be intimidated. If you don’t get what you want, you can escalate until you get an appropriate response.

And if necessary, you can always hire a tutor for some extra support in a subject. There is nothing to stop you buying in extra help on a flexible basis by getting a tutor in.   You can download your private education from the cloud in small, targeted doses.

3) Exam success

You can make a case that private schools get better exam results and that exam results are a filter for entry into better paid professions. But this argument is simplistic and over-played.  Correlation is not causation.

Private schools have a huge advantage in terms of their intake. Everyone sending their children to private school values the service highly enough to pay for it.  

Compare and contrast with the small but troublesome minority of parents of state school children that don’t value education and complain when Jamie Oliver improves the food being fed to their children. Where parental support for hard work is higher, children get better exam results…in state schools or private schools.

If you want a free school full of kids with other ambitious parents, move into the catchment area of a good state school.  This is not cheating, its playing.

4) Future earnings

50 years ago there was an old boys network that would ensure that your child got a job for life after a private school education. That happened but it’s now gone.

In the City, The Escape Artist saw the last of these dinosaurs go extinct as British merchant banks got bought up by foreigners who felt (not unreasonably) that people should actually work hard and deliver results for their bonus rather than just have gone to the right school.

I hired quite a few bright young people during my finance career. There was never a shortage of exam factory product.  So good exam results were never what swung my final decision. I looked for people with unusual drive and motivation.

Even if private school education did provide an advantage in getting top jobs, what about the opportunity cost of what you could do with the school fees? Remember the example of Kate where putting £15k into a pension by 25 had turned into £1m by 65?

Or, even better, teach them the maths yourself and give them the gift of working for what they get.

5) Games and exercise

Apparently, the Duke of Wellington said “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

Private schools have a long and successful tradition of using sports to provide the children with essential qualities such as resilience, perseverance, self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification.

These are the inestimable advantages of hardening the fuck up.

Fortunately these are all available to you for next to nothing by introducing your child either to rugby, football, cricket etc or to Karate classes or just simply getting them outdoors more, off the playstation and onto a bike.

6) Cold showers

One of the benefits of an elite private school education is said to be that it “builds character” based on games or long cross country runs followed by cold showers. This is stoicism: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

If you want your child to experience cold showers, The Escape Artist suggests that there is an cheaper way than sending your child to Eton.  Just turn off your boiler or immersion heater. You’ll save pennies on the shower and a couple of hundred grand on school fees.

7) Diet

Another element of the elite British education was simple food: meat and boiled vegetables. If you get raised on simple, natural food, you do not get obese, you do not get a slow metabolism, big bones nor Type 2 diabetes.

Compare and contrast with today’s kids raised on junk food, processed carbohydrate and pop tarts. Lets hope we don’t have to rely on them for the modern equivalent of The Battle of Waterloo or storming the D Day beaches.

Here’s the good news, if you want your child to experience simple, natural food, then there’s no need to send them to Eton.  Just send them to Tesco Express to get some broccoli…its much cheaper.

8) Dormitory life

If you’ve never seen the film Chariots of Fire, go watch it now.

The film makes the link between the ethos of British public (translation: private!) schools and eventual Olympic success. The film shows the esprit de corps generated by living in spartan shared dormitories, the lack of soft furnishings, the bracing runs on the beach on overcast days.

Its odd that British culture can celebrate the benefits of these spartan conditions… and then turn around and quickly forget the benefits of hardening the fuck up.

Most people’s biggest financial commitment is buying a house. How many people add years to their time in The Prison Camp because they want their children to have their own bedrooms rather than share a room?

Could all this extra housing cost, stress and effort be pointless?

9) Social skills

Another reason that many people send their child to private school is the social skills that it is said to give you.  As someone that was not over-burdened with social skills in their early years, The Escape Artist does not discount this.

But you (or your child later on) can get the best social skills training in the world by working as a barman, smiling a bit more 🙂 and reading How To Win Friends and Influence People.  Total cost: less than zero (you get paid to work a bar).

So if you want a masterclass in social skills, you don’t need to go to Eton.  You could start by listening to this podcast.

Children learn from role models and they watch what you do. So if you are good at this stuff, your children absorb much of it unconsciously.


If The Escape Artist had a bigger freedom fund, I admit it would have been tempting to spend money on something reassuringly expensive like private education for my kids.

And if I’d wanted my children to be Prime Minister, then I probably should have sent them to Eton. But do I really want them to be Prime Minister?  Errr, no. The clients (voters) are ungrateful as hell and the salary is lousy given the stress involved.  Have you ever seen those before and after pictures for Presidents and Prime Ministers? After 5+ years in the job, they look like shit.

Private education also often comes with a hidden cost. There is no shortage of parents that are highly stressed and anxious, having borrowed money to fund private education.  This is a violation of the rule: Apply Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others.

Private education is the downfall of many people’s financial independence.  Firstly, its expensive and secondly, its like a ratchet.  Once one of your babies is enrolled, you’ll probably feel obliged to treat all the others equally at ruinous cost. So the decision of state education vs private education will be a big fork in the road.

You needn’t worry, The Escape Artist will not be banning private schools. Its your money, your choice. And if you are loaded and can afford to send your brood to private schools without impacting your decision to work or not, then fine, good for you.

But, for most middle class people, choosing private education is like detonating a grenade under your freedom fund.  For my money, I just don’t think the benefits match the costs.

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  1. Bobbyo · · Reply

    Hey TEA when’s the book out?

  2. There is no education nor teacher in the world worth £59k of debt
    Kind regards

  3. I don’t agree.

    I went to an inner city comprehensive and managed to do ok because (a) I’m clever (b) modest (c) (seriously) my dad pushed me very hard. But most days I arrived home grateful for not having had the shit kicked out of me.

    My kids are both privately educated and (like it or not) purely the fact of mixing with the “right” crowd (meaning a crowd of child whose parents are ALL pushing them hard) has an influence meaning even an average child has a much higher chance of performing well.

    Whether it actually represents value for money is an entirely different question.

    1. You have a bias, though. “Performing well” at school is quite unrelated to “performing well” in professional life, or, more importantly, being happy.
      My parents never pushed me hard at school and I got a public education. I’m happy I had the life that I did. I’ve seen kids being miserable because of their “hard pushing” parents.

      Also, in my limited experience, the “right” crowd you talk about in private school is not representative of the actual population. Public school is better at teaching the real world IMO.

  4. nick bayat · · Reply

    I would also add with the drive to get 50% of the population to go to university has resulted dumbing down of acceptance criteria. Result any old idiot can do FE which takes the whole exam result performance out of the equation.
    One thing you did miss EA is the whole status / conspicuous consumption side = a fool and their money !

  5. Hi TEA – what are your thoughts on the popular alternative to private school that is buying a house in the ‘good’ school district?

    It was our choice of evils when we picked a family home, for a few reasons. 1) Like Cap_Scarlet above, we agree that it’s good for children to be surrounded by other children whose parents are motivated/a little pushy, as kids tend to be competitive in a healthy way 2) ‘Good’ school areas are often ones with a generally nice environment and low levels of crime/antisocial behaviour etc. 3) Greater fool theory – we expect the value of our home to at least keep pace with the rest of the country unless the schools suddenly go down the drain.

    1. Hi L, yes I think that’s common sense…factoring that in when considering moving is not cheating! Article updated accordingly.

  6. JonWB · · Reply

    Careful…. On (3) the bigger risk is the adoption of revised admissions criteria. Whilst nearest the school gate is the current system, you need to consider that they may introduce random ballot to prevent those with the financial means being able to get priority via higher property prices in the catchment area.

  7. JonWB · · Reply

    I am weighing up private vs state at the moment. Both Children are in very good state primary schools and the junior school in particular is excellent.

    Both my wife and I went to state comps (although my wife got a full scholarship to a private school to do A-Levels). We both went to top universities.

    It is really a question of whether we go state and set aside the money we would have spent on a private education and invest it instead.

    The figures are:

    Private from 11+

    GBP 335,250 in school fees
    GBP 580,650 in lost capital

    Private from 16+

    GBP 107,750 in school fees
    GBP 123,000 in lost capital

    5% escalation in fees from known level today, offset for the ages of the children.
    Lost capital is what we would have if we invested the money instead and hit a 7% investment return (assuming it is all tax wrapped) by the time the youngest finishes education.

    I was seriously impressed with the maths department at the local state comp I went to see on an open evening. They were knowledgeable about what the top universities look for in STEM subjects and also had experience of at least pointing

    the pupils to extra preparation and exams they may need to take with offers of assistance (e.g. STEP papers for Cambridge/Warwick/Imperial/Bath/UCL and the assessments prior to going up for interviews at both Oxford and Cambridge). Some Oxbridge applications and in some years, they get one or two pupils accepted.

    The problems with state schools are:

    1) It is difficult to retain staff in areas of high housing cost (e.g. the South East). This will become acute as older teachers (who own property) retire and are replaced by those starting out who rent (and probably house share). Unless they have a much higher earning partner or wealthy parents then they have no chance of being able to buy a flat/house.
    2) Disruption. I remember only too fondly how I negotiated at 14 with my headteacher to explain I wouldn’t attend some classes and instead I would work from the library.
    3) Understanding the system. There is no point in doing 12 GCSEs as I was forced to do. 8 GCSEs are more than enough.

    I think the best private day school in our area – but notoriously difficult to get into – is worth a shot in terms of an application and doing the exams for entry. The fees are a bit lower than the other private day schools. The other private day schools are not worth it in my opinion. In fact, more than that, the other private schools are likely to lead to a vast increase in consumption needs which won’t be a good start in life.

    I also like the idea of:

    1) State until 16.
    2) Private from 16 – 18 (if that is the choice of the child).
    3) University with no fees and a decent stipend from the parents (if that is the choice of the child).

    If the child forgoes (2) and/or (3) then they get the money invested for them instead.

  8. Andy Boe · · Reply

    Great blog Escape artist. I enjoy reading it, very insightful and great to see a good UK based blog.

    I’m currently crawling out of a huge pile of financial shite myself. Wish me luck.

    1. Thank you and good luck!

      All the best, TEA

  9. My wife and I have been considering enrolling out son into a private school so thanks for sharing this. I like your point about how private educations can help ensure they get the best jobs when they graduate. We’ll definitely look into this more so he can take advantage of these opportunities.

  10. I like how you mentioned that on average, private school teacher gets paid more than public school teachers, which is also possible that it translates into better teaching in the private sector. I want my kids to have the best education, and am considering what school to send them to. I will definitely keep your tips and information on schooling in mind so that I can get the best education for my family.

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