Education Aug 16 2010

Watch out for private school spin and dodgy statistics

The private school spin machine is cranking itself up, in readiness for its usual post GCSE and A level orgy of self congratulation. Consider the story on the front page of this week’s Observer, which claimed that privately educated pupils were expected to get’ three times as many of the new A* grades at A level as state school students’.

The story was entirely based on an assertion by the head of the Independent Schools Council. As Henry Stewart, the eagle eyed chair of governors at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, pointed out to the Guardian/Observer readers’ editor, the opening sentence in the story was inaccurate and numerically wrong.

‘Backing evidence for this claim, later in the article, indicates that individual private school students are three times as likely to get an A* as a state school students’ he wrote. ‘This is a very different statement to the opening one, which suggests that for every 4 A* grades, three will go to private school students.

‘Taking the figures in the article (16.5% of private students getting A*, as opposed to 5% of state schools, combined with the fact that 13.4% of A levels were taken by private students) gives a prediction of:

Private school students – 34% of A* grades

State schools – 66% of A* grades.

That’s a long way from private school students getting three times as many.’

It is worrying enough that a major national newspaper can’t get its sums right. But perhaps more troubling is that, as is so often the case, no state school head teachers were available or invited to comment. If they had been, one hopes they would have pointed out that the article actually said little about the performance of state versus private schools.

What it did tell us is that private schools tend to educate students from better off aspirant homes – possibly even some of those thick, rich kids that Michael Gove recently pointed out were hot housed from an early age to outperform their brighter, poorer peers.

They tend to be carefully selected and taught in much smaller classes, with resources that pupils in many state schools can only dream of, as the ISC readily boasts on its website.

Meanwhile what the Observer could have said is that many state schools educating children from some of the poorest parts of the country also do a great job at getting young people from less prosperous backgrounds to fulfil their potential, with pupils from poor homes 50% more likely to go to university now than ten years ago. But we have no idea how well these high flying independent schools would do if they were educating those students, especially the most troubled 10%, rather than the ones who are likely to succeed in all schools.

The private school spin will continue unabated for the next two weeks as national exam results become public. Unfortunately it will be aided by the prejudices of most national newspapers, whose editors have a vested interest in talking down a system most have rejected for their own children.

It will be interesting to see how the new Coalition government chooses to respond to this. Talking down the achievements of state schools is their preferred response at the moment but that also means rubbishing the achievements of a hard working majority of students.

Their successes should be celebrated rather than dismissed by dodgy statistics from a self serving  organisation whose main aim is to market its ‘product’ to the public.

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