The good news about education is that “A-Level standards at top state state schools have risen so dramatically that the sector is challenging the best private schools”. That, at least, is the conclusion of a Sunday Times analysis, complemented by The Good Schools Guide. The bad news is that little is ever what it seems in education and, not least, this latest bout of delusional self-congratulation.
It is true, of course, that we have some very good state schools. Indeed, a third of state secondary schools actually put forward pupils for Oxbridge entrance. The problem is that two thirds of state schools do not. And too many youngsters are being educated in an underclass of schools that send few if any of their pupils to any Russell Group university. In Portsmouth and Knowsley, for example, it is one per cent and two per cent of pupils respectively. In contrast the percentages for Reading, Sutton and Buckinghamshire are 38 per cent, 26 per cent and 25 per cent.
A ‘great divide’ exists in the UK between ‘good’ schools and ‘poor’ schools. To be on the right side of that divide you need money. Some parents will have sufficient income to buy into the many good schools in the private sector. Others will secure a good education for their child by purchasing a house in the catchment area of a good state school.
Both the Prime Minister and his former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, have played the ‘system’ well by securing places for their children at the same outstanding state school – Grey Coat Hospital School. Tony Blair did much the same for his children. They attended the excellent London Oratory. Left wing Diane Abbott went even further in her search for a good school. She ditched her political credentials by sending her son to the private and academically elite City of London School.
One can hardly blame any of these politicians for seeking to do the best for their children. Only that former prep school and grammar school boy Jeremy Corbyn was daft enough to insist that his son go to a ‘bog standard comp’ rather than to the grammar school at which he has won a place. His wife divorced him and the boy duly took up his grammar school place.
The examination ‘success’ of our best state schools does not include many of the schools that most of our children attend. Nearly all of the 93 state schools in the top 300 for A-Level results are grammar schools. Only four comprehensives make the list and all of them are faith schools. Is this really a success story for state schools?
Nor should we be misled into believing that the overall quality, richness and breadth of education offered by many independent schools can be matched by even the best of the state sector. From our Olympic teams to our Hollywood actors, from our musicians to our barristers, chief executives and top medics, the privately educated dominate in a way wholly disproportionate to their numbers.
Grammar schools based on academic selection and some free schools, academies and faith schools based, largely, on selection by parents’ ability to buy into the postcode, may be doing well in terms of A-Level results but, sadly, they remain well adrift in terms of the overall quality of education they can offer.
The thin veneer of examination ‘success’ for a minority of state schools that the children of well-off parents can access is a distraction from deep-rooted failure of a majority of state schools.