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The best state schools have pulled ahead of private schools. Why is that so hard to accept?

28 February 2016

2:37 PM

28 February 2016

2:37 PM

For years, now, the Sutton Trust has been releasing research showing how many doctors, judges, journalists etc were privately educated and conclude that it’s all a posh boys’ stitch-up. The British press loves banging this old drum, but in doing so they drown out a new tune. Today, there is more academic excellence in the state sector than the private sector.

Not that many people want to know. Take, for example, an article in this week’s Economist. “Education should not be about wealth” it quotes Tony Blair saying in 1996. Wrong, Blair! The Sutton Trust’s report shows that “two decades later, it still is” about wealth. But when does the Economist think these ‘senior civil servants, cabinet ministers and leading journalists’ went to school? Two decades ago, at least. Their performance reflects how schools were – not how they are.

And how are schools today? Private schools are in a panic, slashing fees or closing due to ferocious competition from a reformed state sector. Let’s take A-Level points per pupil, in both sectors. If you compare the top 100 state schools to the top 100 private schools, the state schools outperform. Same if you compare the top 50. Or the top 200. Or any number you like.

I created the below graph to make this point: there are a lot of state schools, and a lot do come out worse. But the best state schools are better than their private-sector equivalents. For example, move the cursor until to 200: that shows the average A-Level points per pupil for the 200th best private school and the 200th best state school. But you can bet the 200th private school spent a hell of a lot more money trying to get the results of its state equivalent.

I ran this study a while ago for my Daily Telegraph column – and private schools went bananas. It’s the only time someone actually released a statement condemning one of my articles. Why the reaction? This kind of study is toxic to them. If you’re going to fork out £20k on your child’s education, you don’t want something that’s a bit better than what you can get for free – you want one that’s a whole lot better. And there’s a lot of pretty mediocre education in the private sector.

They need to perpetuate the now-disprovable myth that private is always better. It isn’t – not anymore. It’s sometimes better, and a lot of the time it’s worse. And word is getting out, unfortunately for the sort of prep schools who charges a bomb but offer little more than expensive blazers and smatterings of Latin. As the above graph shows, the top 300 private schools can still (just) keep pace with the top 300 state schools. But after the top 300, private school attainment nosedives.

The private schools try to cover this up by using ratios: X per cent of state schools get great results, versus Y per cent of state schools. But given that state schools cover every community in Britain, and private schools mainly cover parents with the most cash, you’d expect such ratios.

What the private schools hate is that they don’t, now, have a monopoly of the top of the attainment spectrum. They don’t even have a majority of top-performing schools at A-Level. The reforms that Tony Blair unleashed are coming to maturity.

The pace of change is remarkable. When The Good Schools Guide first came out in 1986 it recommended just ten state schools. Its latest print edition mentions 265, about a third of those listed. It’s hard to keep track of the progress: in its latest digital edition, the number of state schools recommended has risen to 319.

So those Sutton Trust reports about the advantage the private education confers on people in their 40s are the best advert for private schools you could imagine, perpetuating an outdated idea that you always need to pay to get the best. You don’t: not in today’s Britain. And why? Because of that chap The Economist took a swipe at: Tony Blair. And his successors: Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove. You can already see their efforts reflected in the change in the percentage of state-educated pupils accepted for Oxbridge.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 14.26.25

These graduates will hit the top of their careers in about 20 to 30 years’ time. By which time, The Sutton Trust’s report on those in the top jobs will reflect the Blair effect. And, who knows, the Economist and others might have caught up with the school revolution that’s happening before our eyes.

PS The panicked private schools commissioned their own research from Durham University, comparing all state schools to private schools. CoffeeHousers might have read about earlier this week: newspapers wrote it up as private education adding the equivalent of two years of schooling aged 16, or a two-grade improvement on GCSEs. But the small print adds that this was…

“…before deprivation, prior academic ability and school-level factors were taken into consideration. The difference was reduced to 0.64 of a GCSE grade when these factors were controlled for.”

So all of that extra cash buys your kids barely half a grade more at GCSE? Not a boast you’d see on many private school prospectuses. And it does make you wonder if a similar effect could be achieved by a bit of extra tuition.

PPS And yes, the best state schools are usually open to those rich enough to live in the catchment area – there is much to be done. An fair society is one where the gap between wealth and attainment is replaced between ability and attainment. Still all too much of distance to travel on that particular journey.


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