"[S]o far as I'm concerned, private education is a waste of money. You can get a perfectly good education - indeed, probably a better one - for free."Chris Dillow's observations reminded me of an article I read years ago that argued that parents would be better to invest the money and give it to their children when they were of age to pay for further education, start a business or invest in property:
"So why do so many parents prefer private education? Is it really so superior to state education? Could it be that they regard education as a positional good, and one worth paying through the nose for? Are they paying to get their children social contacts rather than education per se? Or is the chance of a marginally better education really valuable in winner-take-all economies?"Thing is, whether private or state, education is not a homogeneous good, so these questions will never have one answer. In Scotland at least the best comprehensives compete with private schools and are better than the poorer performing ones. So Tom is quite right to say one can get as good an education for 'free'.
However, the range is extraordinary and the worst comprehensives are absolutely hellish: here the difference between the worst private schools and the worst comprehensives is very far from being marginal.
I used to teach in what has a reasonable claim to be the worst school in Scotland. One of my present colleagues also taught there, having through no fault of her own, inherited my job when I left. She told me the other day that from a range of pupils we both taught, four of them are now dead. The actual building itself has also been the scene of two fatal stabbings. A less extreme fate awaits the overwhelming majority, of course, but a citadel of learning it is not.
Parents buy mortgages they can barely afford for the same reason they purchase private education if they can; to avoid this sort of school. I'd argue then that while Chris is right to say that education for many parents is a 'positional good' and while this often involves a fair amount of unpleasant snobbery, in this sort of context I can scarcely blame them.