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The real divide is not between state and private schools but between good schools and bad


THE Oxbridge entry debate has kicked off again: ‘It is possible that, under pressure from politicians and the public to increase the share of state pupils gaining places, Oxbridge colleges have tilted the balance too far.’ This warning was sounded by the Sunday Times in its latest editorial. It was a response to an opinion piece by Andrew Halls, head of a leading independent school, King’s College, Wimbledon, himself a one-time Birmingham comprehensive school pupil who made it to Cambridge. 

In a follow-up interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Halls pointed out that Cambridge has decided that 64 per cent of admissions should be from state schools. To accommodate this aim, the A-Level entrance grade is being lowered to B. These B-graders will most likely undertake a foundation year before commencing their degree proper. Listen here [at approx. 08.35]

Given that this year a mark of just 55 per cent secured an A grade in A-Level mathematics, Halls has a point. He has suggested that if state schools were to improve their teaching quality there would be less need to lower entry standards. He is right, of course, and he should be less apologetic about speaking truth to the power of the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’. By timidly telling the BBC that state schools are ‘getting better and better’ he is not facing up to the facts. If this is the case, why have exam boards had to lower the pass mark for A-Level maths to a derisory 14 per cent? 

Some schools are certainly improving but schools minister Nick Gibb is mistaken if, on the basis of recent Ofsted data, he believes: ‘Parents can be assured that the likelihood of having a good or outstanding school on their doorstep has been hugely increased, with almost nine in ten schools rated good or outstanding compared with just seven in ten schools in 2010.’

Covering the period from September 2018 to the end of March 2019, the data showed that only 16 per cent of schools previously judged to be ‘outstanding’ kept their top grade on re-inspection. Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, provided a more honest assessment of the data when she said it ‘should still set alarm bells ringing’.

Media commentators, politicians and the educational establishment are rather too obsessed with the divide they see between schools in the state sector and those in the private sector. The Sunday Times editorial, for example, is excited by the fact that at A-Level the ‘performance gap between independent schools and the state sector is narrowing’.

Unfortunately, this ignores another ‘fact’. Many of the brightest pupils in the independent sector do not take A-Levels at all. The exam is deemed undemanding for the most able. For this reason 10 per cent sit the more rigorous Pre-U. Another 6 per cent take the International Baccalaureate – arguably more challenging than the traditional A-level since it covers six subjects.

Both Andrew Halls and the Sunday Times have identified a divide in our school system. They cannot, however, see the wood for the trees. The real divide is not between state schools and private schools but between good schools and poor schools. It is also a divide between those parents who can afford private schooling or to to buy a house in the catchment areas of a good state school and those who cannot.

In 2016 the Social Mobility Commission, chaired by Labour’s Alan Milburn, reported that a child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas was 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged.

As long ago as 2010, a Sutton Trust report, Worlds Apart – Social Variation Among Schools, noted that amongst state secondary schools 91 out of 100 of the most socially selective were comprehensive schools. Only eight were grammars and one was a secondary modern. The data was based on those pupils whose parents received income support rather than the less reliable but more often quoted free school meals criterion.

It is the disparity of opportunity and the wide variations in teaching quality within our state school system, coupled with an impoverished and discredited public exam system, that should most concern us. Fix these and you fix all the other educational issues, including Oxbridge entrance and neurotic and misguided hang-ups about private schooling.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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