Education Mar 24 2010

Some private school myths

Private school heads have been on the rampage this month. First out of the trap was Andrew Grant, head master of St Albans School and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses  Conference, moaning about the fact that his parents were made to feel guilty about paying school fees (£12690 per annum at his school).

‘It irritates me that there are people living in my own city, in £3million houses, driving BMW7 series and taking three or four holidays a year, who send their children to the local comprehensive…and feel they have the moral high ground. Why aren’t they living in a council flat and driving a Trabant or whatever the latest equivalent is?’ he explained.

Then came Anthony Seldon, head master of Wellington College, informing us that state schools were turning children into well-drilled automatons. This was especially interesting since Professor Seldon appears to have no first hand experience of either being a pupil or a teacher in a state school in his otherwise long and distinguished career. He was educated in a private school (Tonbridge) , went to Oxford, then taught in a string of independent schools, Whitgift, Tonbridge, St Dunstan’s and Brighton College before he settled up at Wellington ( fees £27,705 per annum for boarders and £20,760 for day pupils).

‘Too many state schools have become factories,’he wrote  in a pamphlet An End to Factory Schools published by the Centre for Policy Studies. ‘Reluctant students are processed through a system closely controlled and monitored by the state. The new world does no need container -loads of young men and women whose knowledge is narrowly academic and subject-specific which they can regurgitate in splendid isolation in exams’

Finally Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headteachers and Headmistresses’ Conference took a pot shot at the grammar schools, telling the Financial Times that even though the grammars were more selective, they added less value than independent schools which benefitted from smaller class sizes and more resources.

Is it a case of protesting too much? The private school sector is by all accounts feeling the chill wind of the recession and what better way to bolster parents’ confidence about parting with hard earned cash than a well organised PR campaign to subtly talk down the achievements in the state sector, aided and abetted by national newspapers that are mostly edited by journalists who send their children to private schools.

These same editors and commentators are keen to promote the several myths. The first is that private schools are uniformly excellent and state schools uniformly bad. But that’s not true. Curiously a speech by Professor Dylan Wiliam, given recently at an education conference organised by the Spectator Magazine failed to get any coverage at all. Maybe that was because he said the unthinkable, which is that maybe private schools aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Professor Wiliam assertion that the quality of teaching in state schools is better than it has ever been and, on average much higher than is found in the independent sector, is based on ‘incontrovertible evidence’, he says.

Tests used in the OECDs Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) study show that while the the gap in results between students attending private schools and those attending publicly funded schools is greater in England than in any other  OECD country, that difference largely disappears when the effect of social class and the  ‘halo effects’ of positive peer group are accounted for. As Professor Wiliam concluded, teachers in the state sector are delivering the same quality of teaching in classes of 25 that their private school counterparts are delivering in classes of 13.

The second myth is that private schools now take disadvantaged, ‘diverse’ intakes partly due to their bursary and scholarship systems. Not true either – the Independent Schools Council is unable to provide any figures on the numbers of children on Free School Meals in its schools, even though that is the most commonly used indicator of disadvantage. Its case largely rests on the fact that some of its schools take children from urban postcodes in which there are high levels of deprivation.

But large pockets of wealth and advantage often exist within those postcodes.So the child from an inner London borough at the highly selective London day school  is much more likely to be the child of an accountant, a city broker or a lawyer than a child with parents on income support.

Moreover most  bursaries and scholarships are linked to selective entry tests.Research from the Millenium Cohort study, the Sutton Trust and Leon Feinstein has shown how quickly  able children from disadvantaged homes are overtaken in terms of attainment by less able children from more affluent homes, before they even start school.

The gap then continues to widen, making selective entry more and more of a hurdle for children without supportive homes or money for private tuition.So bursaries and scholarships more likely to go to the impoverished, credit crunched middle classes than the really disadvantaged.

Myth three is that private schools benefit society, by reducing the burden on tax payers of educating the children whose parents opt them out of state schools. But the child on free school meals, from a low income home, in care or with emotional or behavioural difficulties will have his or her chances in a local school diminished by the flight of wealthier neighbours into the private sector because all children benefit from schools with balanced intakes.

Myth four is that private schools don’t turn out pupils who are well drilled automatons. In fact it is the core task of many private schools to turn out pupils with academic knowledge which they can regugitate in splendid isolation in exams. That is what the parents pay for, it is why those schools have  an unpleasant habit of asking students to leave if they aren’t making the grade academically and why some research suggests that state school pupils with similar A level grades perform better at university when the skills of being an independent learner, rathat than a well drilled automaton, come to the fore.

Maybe the reason Andrew Grant’s parents feel guilty is not because of their nasty BMW driving neighbours who are happy with their children’s education in comprehensive schools, but because they are worried they might be wasting their money ( even Oxford University is predicting that it will have its biggest ever state school cohort this year )  in a system that is  bad for society  and costs the tax payer dearly.

What Messrs Grant, Seldon and Lucas won’t say is that private schools act as a break on social cohesion and social mobility. They divide young people by race, class and family income at a time when we should be trying to bridge those divides.They cream off able students and aspirant parents from the state system and reduce every other child’s chance of being educated in a real comprehensive school.

And comprehensive education is still internationally acknowledged to be the best route to high outcomes for all children rather than simply an affluent few, something the BMW driving parents of St Albans understand only too well.


2 Responses to “Some private school myths”

  1. Cassandra says:

    If Seldon had referred to all schools, rather than state schools, he would have had a point. The narrow focus on examinations is just as common in private as in state schools.

  2. I like your blog very much!

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