Education Aug 26 2010

Guess what? The state sector is closing the gap.

By Henry Stewart, Chair of Governors Stoke Newington School 0 comments

You may not have realised it from the media coverage but this year’s exam results showed the state sector gaining on private schools at both GCSE and A level.

In comprehensives the proportion of GCSE grades being an A or A* rose by 0.9 % and those achieving C or better rose by2.2%. In private schools the pass rates in both categories fell. Private school students of course still get more A grades. But back in 2002 they were 3.9 times as likely to get an A grade at GCSE as a student at a comprehensive. Now they are just 2.9 times as likely.

At A level the proportion of A and A* grades achieved in the state sector rose from71% to 71.3%. Not a huge change but a reflection of continued improvement.

The media chose to focus on the fact that private school students were three times as likely to get the new A* grade as those in comprehensives. Why it is surprising that a sector that takes the most privileged students, from the most affluent backgrounds, gets strong results, is unclear. It is a sad reality in the UK, but a reality nevertheless, that educational achievement is closely tied to social and economic background. That they achieve more top grades is no more a big news story than would be the revelation that people who are wealthy live in bigger houses.

There was a lot of misleading reporting. The Observer had to apologise for and correct its front page lead claiming that private schools would get three times as many A* grades as the state sector. In fact the state sector got 70% of the A* grades. The article was based entirely on information from the Independent Schools Council, hardly an unbiased source.

In the Independent, Mary Dejevsky claimed that the new A* grade exposed a gap between the state and private sector that the old A grade had concealed. It is an interesting idea but when I contacted Mary it became clear she had no evidence for it. In fact the state sector achieved 71% of last year’s A grades and 70% of this year’s A* grades – virtually the same. Mary went on to argue that, if they used the new A* grades, Oxford and Cambridge could find themselves “admitting proportionately fewer state school pupils than before”. This is nonsense. Oxford takes 55% of its students from the state sector and Cambridge takes 59%. With 70% of A* grades being taken by state students, the question to ask is why the Oxbridge intake does not reflect this proportion.

In fact there is no need for hand-wringing over the performance of state schools. The sector has shown steady improvement. The challenge remains how to ensure all students, from whatever background, achieve their potential. On this the private sector has nothing to offer, as it has such limited experience. Even in the days of assisted places, private schools were only interested in taking poorer students who were already achieving well. There are comprehensives that do get tremendous results from students from all backgrounds and those are the ones we must learn from and whose good practice we must spread.

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