Three out of ten public school pupils do not get 5 good GCSEs

Nigel Ford's picture
The latest research form the Sutton Trust shows that those pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM) perform badly on educational criteria, particularly when compared to their public school counterparts. Headlines from papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph are gleefully telling us that "private pupils are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge".

I don't think too many people will be surprised to know that there is a correlation between pupils from financially poor backgrounds where the householder is on welfare benefits like Jobseekers Allowance/Income Support/Incapacity Benefit etc don't usually make it to an elite university. Often there are many other factors which contribute to their educational outcomes. The fact that schemes like AimHigher are being withdrawn from schools means that the proportion of FSM pupils gaining access to university education isn't likely to increase in the immediate future.

But what struck me most when reading the research wasn't the FSM statistics but that in 2005 on which the data was based, 29% of privately educated pupils don't reach the standard 5 GCSE passes including English and Maths. I really do find that incredible! So parents were forking out around £10,000 a year (sometimes more) and in only just over 70% of cases was the pupil achieving the GCSE benchmark. It just shows that private education isn't necessarily the magic bullet.

This means that I can see my youngest non academic (though beautiful) daughter who passed only 5 GCSEs including English and Maths at her local comp in 2003 and went on to college to do a GNVQ Beauty Studies course in a different light knowing that she would be placed in the top 71% of private school pupils in educational attainment.

To me the research shouldn't be telling us about the lack of achievement by FSM pupils but about the relative failure of the 29% of pupils attending private schools.
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Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 11:36

I should just make clear that the GCSE performance was based on the 2005/06 academic year so the results are in fact 2006 (not 2005).

Nick Cowen's picture
Tue, 28/12/2010 - 17:30

Interesting report. But I would be keen to know whether they have accounted for the fact that lots of independent schools don't use GCSEs for all or some of their subjects. For example, the much more prestigious IGCSEs are used by some independent schools because they are more like the old O levels. Universities will probably note these achievements which are hidden in the Government's official figures.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 10:35

The figures I'd like to see for private schools are the "value-added" ones. Most private schools ruthlessly cream off the best pupils with their selective entrance tests; do private schools actually add any value?

Nick Cowen's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 11:51

Well that would strike me as a rather difficult statistical exercise, Francis. But for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure independent schools are a bad deal at least when measured in academic outcomes alone. After all they operate in a fairly uncompetitive Market with few potential competitors in a sector that is bifurcated by the educational equivalent of the Berlin wall. You either get all state funded or all private funded rather than as it should be, a free mix of funding sources.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 12:47

Yes, I think it would be a statistical exercise but doing it in conjunction with some qualitative research might illuminate exactly what private schools offer that state schools don't. I agree with you that they operate in a fairly uncompetitive market: it all seems to be a bit of a cartel at the moment, with fees and holidays being more or less covertly agreed between schools. I think if parents were aware of the poor education that they offer and the damaging psychological effects of academic selection amongst young children, I think they would not be so keen as some are. I definitely agree with you that a non-selective education system is the best way forward; I'm not sure though that this would work in the context of a free market of schools.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 12:58

Nick, on your original point, earlier this year there was an article in the Times which I posted on another blog stating that several public schools were dropping IGCSE for various reasons and returning to the GCSE.

With regard to how IGCSE entries might scew the percentage readings for GCSE pass rates, there was a footnote under the research which gave a table for GCSE entries. Basically, nearly 90% of 15/16 year old private school pupils took 5 or more GCSEs and of those it appears that 22.4% failed to pass 5 or more at grade C or above including Eng and Maths. Boys fared worse than girls with 27.4% of them failing this criterion.'Table 2a'!A1

Kath Richardson's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 16:36

As a non-statistical aside I would like to point out that many years ago, when I went to an Independent school, I was horrified, even at the age of 15 that I had some really rubbish teachers.

We had a French teacher whose accent was so terrible I couldn't understand a word she said (I was fluent but found her lessons impossible).

We had a head teacher about to retire and prefects had to monitor her hallway in break time to make sure no noise disturbed her.

There were a good proportion of teachers who were, at best, adequate. There were several whose delivery was so intensely dull you had to struggle to stay awake for. While I certainly understood less about the education system than I do know, I found it horrific at the time that my parents were spending relatively vast sums of money and that money did not guarantee me good teachers. Facilities were brilliant, and still are but I wonder about the quality of teachers now.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 17:42

In response to Kath, I can only back up your stories with my own anecdotes of sending my son to a private school where many teachers weren't properly trained and didn't have the slightest clue about how children learn; copying and endless, pointless worksheets were the order of the day. I pulled him out before it got too bad, and he has benefitted a great deal from being a local state primary where the teachers are much better trained and, just, well much better!

I think there is a real problem with the fact that private schools don't require their teachers to be properly trained and often don't have proper programmes of Continuous Professional Development. Many of them think that being specialists in a subject is enough and that they can get away with lecturing, setting work they think is interesting and marking it according to their own subjective criteria, rather than levelling according to the national curriculum.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 17:49

It appears that the Sutton Trust were using figures from Table 2 and not Table 2a so in the interests of accuracy the percentages I quoted above were in fact slightly worse.

Of the 45,348 private pupils taking 5 or more GCSEs, 23.75% failed to collect 5 inc Eng and Maths, and 29% of the 22,849 boys failed this benchmark.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 17:54

The truth is that there are plenty of nightmare public schools out there. I was recently told a tale of a pupil who was bullied by a teacher's son at private school in the Midlands; the teacher's son got everyone to stage a mock funeral for the hapless bullied boy. When the parent complained, she received very little support and basically was told to shut up or get going. The trouble is that private schools are just not accountable in the way state schools are; when things go wrong, there's very little form of redress other than removing your child.

At the school I attended, bullying was endemic. The pupils used to pick on anyone who was remotely different; one teacher had tiles thrown at him.

I know a few pupils at so-called top private schools, including one of our most famous, who admitted to me that they bullied younger children because a form of "fagging" was still knocking around, 150 years after Tom Brown's school days.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 18:42

I'm opposed to grammar schools because of their selection by exam policy which dooms the majority of young pupils to a secondary school and labels them as a failure. However one can't take away, and proved by the research of the Sutton Trust, that those pupils in state selective schools, eg grammars, have an excellent academic GCSE/A'level record which exceeds private schools.

But my widowed SIL who lives in Bucks where they still operate the grammar/sec mod schools didn't enter her bright son (now at a good university) for the 11+ where he would have received a Rolls Royce education at Wycombe GS but instead put him through the private sector as a boarder at considerable expense, just for the cachet.

Sadly, there are too many people (including my father, although thankfully not my younger siblings with schoolage kids) who think that private education is the magic bullet and that it somehow gives their family some sort of status in their social circle.

For me the state comprehensive school system, which is free at the point of demand, where children from all walks of life and different backgrounds can learn and develop into adulthood is the best possible upbringing for their lives.

Nick Cowen's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 02:29

'I definitely agree with you that a non-selective education system is the best way forward; I’m not sure though that this would work in the context of a free market of schools.'

Well as we've discussed a little before, the Swedish system is both less selective (schools have very restricted power to decide who they can accept as pupils) and closer to a market. Parents/pupils have a free choice of the schools that are available, and a wider diversity of organisation are allowed to offer their kind of education to them. So I think there is scope to produce a school policy that is both more liberal and more egalitarian at the same time than the one we presently have in England and Wales.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 08:41

I suppose the worry is that in the system like the Swedish one you will get "self-selecting" schools, where schools deter people from sending their children there because of their ethos. we already have this in the UK with faith schools, many of which explicitly reject children not of their faith. Most of the free schools here are religious in character. Encouraging more will only create more religious divides I feel. The free schools which are not religious seem to be self-selecting too in the current system with people like Toby Young obviously putting off the parents and pupils he doesn't want by saying he will forcing all the children to do things like Latin and his talk of a grammar school ethos.

Isn't there more value in getting schools to collaborate, to share resources and teachers, and innovate as well?

Nick Cowen's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 12:52

Once again, I don't see any contradiction between cooperation and competition. Both operate together in a voluntary system. In fact, as Herbert Spencer pointed out, a 'competitor' is usually just a market participatant who you decided not to cooperate with on one occasion but may well do in the future. Cooperation is also how chains of schools operate in sweden and elsewhere by sharing administration costs and best practice.

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