Autonomy myth rumbles on as independent school head suggests ways to end the private/state divide

Janet Downs's picture
Academies increase autonomy in state schools, writes Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, in a report for the think-tank, the Social Market Foundation.

But the Academies Commission debunked this: it found non academies can do most things an academy can do. Earlier, in 2009, the OECD found the UK was among only four countries which gave schools considerable autonomy over budgets, resource allocation, staff recruitment and what to teach (National Curriculum notwithstanding).

Seldon wants to “widen access to private education” and “bring new money into the state system”. This is because “independent school alumni succeed so much better in careers than their state school counterparts”.

If he means independent school pupils are more likely to be able to tap into an exclusive network comprising people from a similar background, then he could be right. But if he means private school pupils in any career do “so much better” than state school pupils, then he’s talking patronizing nonsense.

Evidence is growing that state school pupils outperform their equally-qualified peers at university. The Sutton Trust went further: comprehensive school pupils outperformed their equally-qualified peers from grammar and private schools. But according to Seldon, “report after report” (unnamed) shows the” advantage” of being educated in the private sector.

Seldon says there’s still a gap between “low performing and high performing state schools”. But school intake governs academic achievement (IFS 2011). There’s a gap between “the state sector overall and independent schools”, he writes. But when socio-economic factors are taken into consideration UK state schools outperform UK private schools by a bigger margin than in most OECD countries (OECD 2010).

The gap between rich and poor will widen, says Seldon, because the latter won’t be able to pay for private tuition - only 15% of less well-off children received extra help while 33% of children did so. He doesn’t stop to consider why 77% better-off pupils didn't receive private tuition or why their parents didn’t feel it was necessary. Neither did he ask whether such extra help is desirable. He takes it as given that extra help pays dividends despite growing concerns about over-coaching, cramming and pressurizing children.

Seldon bangs the drum for private schools despite the OECD finding above: state schools outperform private ones when socio-economic factors are considered. He draws heavily on a paper by Ludger Wößmann which used PISA results of ten years ago to show maths performance is highest in countries with a low share of state managed schools but a large share of state funding. But Wößmann only considered 29 of the 40 countries taking part in PISA 2003 and his focus was Catholic “resistance” to state education.

What PISA 2003 actually said was:

“…these [international] comparisons show that the association between a school being private and its students doing well is at best tenuous. Thus, any policy to enhance overall performance only by moving funding from public to private institutions is subject to considerable uncertainty.”

Seldon seems to have missed the “considerable uncertainty”. He proposed several “solutions” to ending the divide between independent and state schools. These will be discussed in a later thread.
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