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Mark Ellse: State and independent schools produce much the same results


In two recent posts, to some criticism, I said a couple of things that have long since seemed to me to be obvious – that academic achievement is largely inherited and that the type of school that a child goes to makes no difference to this. Now to some extent these are overstatements, as I shall in part explain. But that they are nearer to true than false seems to me important because the converse views have led to unrealistic aspirations for education and to an extraordinary level of interference that has so badly served our whole society.

The educational debate is typified by press comment on rather an interesting report issued a couple of days ago by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. “State students outperform private in degree grades,” says the BBC. “Comprehensive school pupils do better at university,” says The Guardian. And true enough the HEFCE report does apparently say that.

First, let us unpick the politics. Both right and left have strong views about education, each inclined to think that its own preferred system is manifestly better. Some aspects of the Left’s position seem inconsistent: despite extolling the virtues of comprehensive education there is constant complaint that independent school pupils are unfairly privileged. This results, so the argument goes, in independently educated children being hot-housed into overperformance at A levels and therefore bagging more than their fair share of good university places. A report like that produced by the HEFCE, showing that state school pupils “perform better at university than those from independent schools”, might give ammunition to those that would wish for educational affirmative action, a nationwide policy to give easier university offers to pupils from state schools.

True enough, state school pupils do seem to do better at university. The sentence from the report that you will see headlined is that 82 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second class degree, compared with 73 per cent independent school graduates. This is a nine percentage point difference. The impression created, apparently deliberately, is that universities ought to take more state school educated pupils because state school pupils do better in their degrees.

It is an argument that seems difficult to refute. The ‘9 per cent difference’ seems quite marked and significant but, as always, the devil is in the detail. These figures are not exactly comparing like with like and it is disingenuous of the HEFCE to produce such a quotable sentence when, on the next page, it points out that five of these percentage points are explainable by other factors leaving only four percentage points due to differences between state and independent schools. The conclusions of these corrected figures is not spelled out in detail but a reasonable approximation would be to say that 79 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second class degree, compared with 75 per cent independent school graduates. This is a four percentage point difference. This is much less sensational but there is still this ‘four percentage point difference’. What on earth does that mean in practice?

As the HEFCE report states, the difference between the two groups at the higher entry grades was not significant. In other words, with the brightest pupils, there is absolutely no difference between state and independent education. That’s a different headline for a start. A very bright child, very likely to get a good degree, is just as likely to get AAA at A level whether he is schooled in the state or the independent system. That’s certainly reassuring for parents who, for geographical or financial reasons, do not have the availability of independent education for their children.

For the rest of the pupils, the graphs in the HEFCE report, can be used to translate the ‘four percentage point difference’ to something a little more comprehensible: a difference in A level grades. If we compare students of equal ability, say comparing all the students who have a 70 per cent chance of getting a first or upper second, on average a state school would have got them CCC at A level and an independent school nearly, but not quite, half a grade better – almost to BCC. As I started by saying, it isn’t true that type of school makes no difference at all; in practice, independent schools can make a tiny difference. But it’s hardly headline material. ‘Doing A levels at an independent school can make one of your A level grades nearly a grade higher!’

I started my teaching career in a comprehensive school but most of my forty year career has been in the independent sector, some of it in highly selective schools. I loved teaching and it was so rewarding to see the real benefits one is able to give to pupils of all abilities in all the different types of school. On the other hand it would not be fair to say that the independent sector is markedly different from the state sector in terms of the academic performance of its pupils. The independent sector gets the vast majority of brighter pupils. When one takes that into account, the real difference in academic performance between the two systems is truly tiny. One suspects that this is something that neither The Guardian nor the independent sector would want in headlines.


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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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