Assisted places scheme allowed “poor pupils” to get £90,000 jobs, says research. What – all of them? And how many were actually "poor"?

Janet Downs's picture
“This new research with the assisted places group confirms the extent to which able children from less advantaged homes gain from an independent school education. It shows the importance of ensuring that access to the best independent day schools is not restricted to those who can afford to pay full fees.”

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust.

But the 75,000 children who took assisted places weren’t all working class pupils "plucked from poverty”. Research done in 1989* found only 10% of pupils had fathers in manual occupations. This proportion rose to 28% in 1997 when 40% of pupils were fully-funded because the family income was less than £9,874.

So, what advantages did the scheme give to pupils that took part? The researchers analysed questionnaires completed by 77 participants in the assisted places scheme who were now in their 40s. It’s unclear whether this 77 had a representative range of ex-pupils with manual worker fathers, service-class occupations and so on. Taken at face value, the results** for full-time workers were:

1   23 earned £90,000+. This was reported as 40% of participants now earning more than £90,000 per year. But 23 out of 77 isn’t 40% - it’s slightly less than one-third (33%).

2   9 earned between £60,000 and £90,000.

3   17 earned £30,000 to £60,000

4   1 was unemployed

That leaves 27 unaccounted for – The Times didn’t give information about this group. Did they earn less than £30,000? Were they only employed part-time?

The respondents didn’t attribute their present status with their schooling, however. 88% said their own ability was the cause and 77% said it was working hard.

Sir Peter Lampl, however, thinks the research shows the assisted places scheme was successful in enabling those who took part “to override any disadvantages associated with their social backgrounds”.

But the majority on the scheme, even at the very end, were not from disadvantaged social backgrounds.

And Sir Peter has forgotten an earlier Sutton Trust study which found pupils from independent schools didn’t do as well at university as equally-qualified pupils from comprehensive schools.

Nevertheless, Sir Peter doesn’t just want the scheme reinstated – he wants it extended into an Open Access scheme whereby pupils would be chosen to enter independent schools on “merit alone” and parents would pay fees on a sliding scale. He says this would “make a major contribution to social mobility”.

But education’s role in social mobility is overstated. Other factors come into play: eg employment levels; wages; income differences and ability to own a house.

Sir Peter cites Belvedere School, Liverpool, a former independent school which operated Open Access before it became state-funded, as an example of how this scheme can help disadvantaged pupils. So, how is Belvedere doing now? In 2012, 13.9% of the school’s intake claimed free school meals. This is less than the national average of 17% and much lower than the Liverpool average of 28%. The Belvedere Academy was listed among the top-50 most socially-exclusive state schools.

The Sutton Trust has in the past condemned covert selection yet here is Sir Peter Lampl arguing for more selection, more creaming of bright children from the state sector to supposedly superior independent schools.

Yet the OECD found UK state schools outperformed private ones when socio-economic background was taken into consideration.

Perhaps Sir Peter should recommend that pupils at private schools enter the state sector rather than the other way round.

UPDATE 17.06   The above post was based on newspaper reports.  I have now located the full report.  The first paragraph of the foreword says:

"Successive OECD reports have shown that our independent schools are the best performing schools in the world..."

But OECD found UK state schools (called public schools by OECD) outperformed private ones when socio-economic background was taken into consideration.  I find it incredible that researchers (plus politicians and most of the media) ignore this.  Instead, they cite the first sentence in the OECD finding (reproduced in full below) but brush away the second.   The full paragraph says:

"On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the United Kingdom even of 62 score points). However, once the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for, public schools come out with a slight advantage of 7 score points, on average across OECD countries (in the United Kingdom public schools outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for)."

(Paragraph 53, page 13, Viewing the UK through the Prism of PISA, December 2010)

How can we take any research seriously when it contains such a fundamental error?

*1995 letter to the Independent cited The State and Private Education: an Evaluation of the assisted places scheme by Tony Edwards, John Fitz and Geoff Whitty (Falmer Press 1989). The letter said:

“…fewer than 10 per cent of the selected children had fathers who were manual workers, compared with 50 per cent in service-class occupations such as teaching, and that although children from single-parent families made up the largest category, other disadvantaged groups, notably the unemployed, and black and Asian families, had poor representation. They also found that two-thirds of those taking up places for the first time at 16 were already fee-paying pupils in the same school.”

** Figures given in The Times 5 October 2013 (behind paywall)

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