The myth of private school performance

Janet Downs's picture
Much has been said in the last couple of weeks about the superiority of English private schools over state ones. Dr Seldon, head of Wellington College, suggested state schools should emulate the best features of private schools unaware that state schools do most of these already. Education Secretary Michael Gove said in his latest Govoration that the standards of state schools should be indistinguishable from those in the private schools.

But do private schools do better than English state ones? The evidence suggests not.


69% of non-affiliated private schools inspected under the old framework from September 2012 and 31 December 2012 were good or better and 31% were judged “less than good”*.

64% of private schools inspected under the new framework from 1 January 2013 to 31 August 2013 were good or better; 36% were “less than good” and 13% were inadequate.

For state schools inspected between 1 September 2012 and 31 August 2013 under the old and new framework:

64% were good or better: 30% required improvement and 6% were inadequate.

These figures suggest little difference between Ofsted judgements of non-affiliated private and state schools although more non-affiliated private schools were judged inadequate. However, these figures should be approached with caution because there’s no differentiation in the state school data between schools inspected under the old and new regime.

There appears to be no corresponding data about the small number of independent schools inspected by the Bridge Schools Inspectorate and the School Inspection Service or the 1,200 schools inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). ISI inspects independent schools affiliated to independent schools associations. Affiliation usually depends on maintaining good or better inspections. This makes it difficult to compare ISI schools, which tend to be highly selective, and the state sector which caters for the whole ability range and does not exclude schools with a poor inspection result from its ranks.


The Institute of Fiscal Studies (2011) found a school’s academic achievement is governed by the ability range of its intake. The private schools admired by Gove tend to be highly selective so it’s hardly surprising their headline results would be better than non-selective schools with the full ability range or one skewed to the bottom of the ability range.


The OECD found pupils who attend private schools tend to perform significantly better in PISA tests BUT pupils in state schools with a similar socio-economic background as private schools tend to achieve the same results.

The private school “advantage”, wrote OECD, may be less than it seems. Any difference that remained after socio-economic background was taken into account could be accounted for by higher levels of autonomy over curricula and resources in private schools. All state schools in England have considerable autonomy over budget spending and the strictures of the national curriculum could be untied by allowing all schools the freedom to opt out.

The OECD** recognised that UK independent schools achieved high results BUT when socio-economic background was taken into account UK state schools outperformed independent ones.

It’s worth repeating that last finding: UK state schools outperform UK private schools when socio-economic background is factored in. In other words, UK state schools do a better job than UK private schools in more difficult circumstances. The seeming superiority of UK private schools is down to their advantaged intake.

*The description “less than good” referred to Grade 3 private schools officially judged “Satisfactory” until December 2012 and “Adequate” from January 2013. Grade 3 state schools are neither “Satisfactory” nor “Adequate” but judged as “Requires Improvement”. Grade 3 schools inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (if any exist given that affiliation depends on a good quality inspection) are neither “Satisfactory” nor “Adequate” and certainly not “Requires Improvement”. They are “Sound”.

**OECD 2010 Viewing the UK School System through the Prism of PISA page 13


The above has been amended. I wrongly said Dr Seldon was head of Westminster College. It should, of course, have been Wellington College. Thanks to Matt for pointing this out.
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Andy V's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 16:12

"The OECD** recognised that UK independent schools achieved high results BUT when socio-economic background was taken into account UK state schools outperformed independent ones."

How does that sit with the OECD findings that poverty does not hold pupils back? It strikes me that either the OECD position is that socioeconomic background is a factor, which Janet's article refers to, or it is a myth and ergo only personal ability and/or ineffective T&L make a difference. They cannot have it both ways, can they?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 17:04

The OECD didn't say poverty does not hold pupils back. It said some pupils buck the trend - they're called "resilient" pupils. Schleicher said "poverty isn't destiny" which is true but it would be naive to say that it doesn't have any effect. Even in top-performing Shanghai where 70% of disadvantaged children are "resilient", 30% are not.

The key seemed to be the amount of time pupils spent studying a particular subject (the focus was science but it applies for all subjects). That doesn't necessarily mean extending the school day (Gove's solution) but ensuring pupils are present.

OECD wrote (first link):

"They [schools] could start by providing more opportunities for disadvantaged students to learn in class by developing activities, classroom practices and teaching methods that encourage learning and foster motivation and self-confidence among those students."

The short versions of PISA research into this subject:

And the longer ones:

Patrick Hadley's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 17:18

When examining the correlation between two factors (such as between poverty and educational attainment) there are many pitfalls to avoid. This is particularly true when you are comparing populations which are very different in many ways.

For an example of just one hypothesis to be tested it could be that while in the UK poverty is correlated with lower parental support for learning, this might not be the case in Shanghai.

As everybody knows correlation does not mean causation. While there is a strong correlation between poverty in the UK and low attainment, does anyone think that "poverty causes poor attainment"? Perhaps there are common factors in the homes of some parents in the UK who are poor, which might be causal factors for the children from those homes not doing as well in school as children in the UK from more advantaged homes. But it is not necessarily poverty in itself that is the cause.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 17:39

Patrick - the role of disadvantage is complex. For example, the OECD and the Education Endowment Fund found advantaged children in schools with a large majority of disadvantaged pupils tended to achieve as well as would be expected given their starting positions. While disadvantaged pupils in schools with a large majority of advantaged pupils tended to do better than would be expected given their starting positions.

Perhaps the answer would be to bring children out of poverty.

However, that's not the subject of this thread (interesting though it is). The point is that the OECD found that when socio-economic background is accounted for then UK state schools outperform private ones.

In other words (sorry to keep repeating myself), the private school "superiority" depends on an advantaged intake. In England the pupils in the top-performing private schools tend to be advantaged and selected for their academic ability.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 17:41

One point not in the original thread is that when state school pupils reach university they tend to outperform equally-qualified peers from private schools. The Sutton Trust went further: comprehensive pupils outperformed their equally-qualified peers from private schools and state grammar schools at university.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 18:00

Andy - We are back to the old confusion about cognitive ability and FSM. Which is the driver of results and which is the proxy? Cognitive ability is the driver. FSM is a proxy because of the very uncomfortable but clear link between parental qualifications, parental income, poor/postcodes and cognitive ability.

So OECD are right that it is not poverty that holds pupils back. (It is lower cognitive ability.) Taking socio-economic background as a proxy for lower cognitive ability, your apparent contradiction disappears.

Ivanhoe's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 21:01

I want to support your argument about comprehensive children at University but must ask the question " did the research consider the quality of provision for the degree" .

I started my engineering science degree at one of the top five universities in the 1980's but for various reasons left and had a much much happier 3 years finished at a University ranked 20th, a move I have never regretted . However in one year at the former I had already done far more maths and applied maths than I did in 3 years for the same course at the latter.

Lisa Pettifer's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 21:03

I believe that the consultation is currently open through which Independent schools can comment on proposals to change the Ofsted inspection framework, making it more similar to that operating in the state system. I'm not sure, though, whether all privately funded schools have to have Ofsted inspections. Isn't there an independent inspection service? So, how independent or accountable does such a service have to be? Any comments received with interest.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 21:03

It's less of a factor in Britain than other places (probably London's performance accounts for that) ,Andy, but still a big factor.

Whether this means British teachers are performing miracles with the poorest or letting down the others, is another question.

Matt's picture
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 23:45

You should, perhaps, think about changing your first paragraph / checking your facts. Dr Seldon is Head at Wellington College, not Westminster College.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 08:28

Whoops! Thanks Matt - the error has been changed with correction noted.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 08:33

Lisa - there are three inspection services for independent schools. Bridge Schools Inspectorate which inspects some private Christian and Muslim schools; the Schools Inspection Service which inspects Plymouth Brethren schools, Steiner schools and schools run by the for-profit firm Cognita: and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) which inspects independent schools affiliated to school association such as HMC.

The inspection regimes are different as are the judgements (see explanation at bottom of original thread).

For further info click on the links in the thread.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 08:36

Ivanhoe - Sutton Trust looked at degree outcome not the quality of provision. Judging the latter could be subjective (my opinion, not backed up by research).

Click on the links in my comment for further info.

Frustrated Teacher's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 19:33

Roger - am i misunderstanding you? Are you saying that CHILDREN born of parents with low qualifications / parental income / certain postcodes have low cognitive ability (generally). In other words are you proposing a genetic cause of cognitive ability, or an unassailable effect on cogntive ability in early development, or have I totally misread your comment?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 22:28

I have extensive experience of Cognitive Ability Testing (CATs) because I was a Cumbria head and in Cumbria all secondary pupils took CATs early in Y7. I have also got a lot of data of CATs scores from the Hackney admissions system, where all pupils take CATs tests in Y6. It is a fact that children from postcodes that are characterised by relative poverty produce lower (often much lower) mean CATs scores than children from postcodes with relative affluence. CATs correlate with GCSE performance to a very high degree. The link between relative parental poverty and low CATs scores is always found whenever CATs data are available.

We also know that CATs scores are very strongly related to GCSE performance (more than SATs), A Level performance especially in maths and science and admissions to top universities.

Any Hackney head would be able to confirm all this. When you list the Y11 GCSE results for pupils in order of their Y6 CATs scores the link jumps off the page.

For a long time, the strong link between parental qualifications and their children's exam results, going to university etc, has also been clear.

Parents with high level qualifications tend to get higher paying jobs and live in posher houses in posher areas.

So the link you are worrying about doesn't seem to be very surprising to me.

None of this requires general intelligence to be inherited, but it would be very odd if some of it wasn't, rather like general athletic ability. Much more important to me is the work of Shayer and Adey that shows that cognitive ability at 11, however acquired, can be significantly raised through the right kind of developmental teaching and that this transfers across subjects. I agree with them that children should be taught in such a way that acquiring skills and knowledge results in cognitive gains, rather than being drilled to pass exams, which doesn't result in cognitive gains.

Very long term longitudinal research on IQ tests has shown that the IQ scores of pensioners that have had cognitively demanding careers have increased with age despite the grey cells dying off!

I deal with much of this in this post.

The argument is further developed in my paper

Titcombe R, Cognitive Ability and School Improvement, Practical Research for Education, Issue 36, 2006

You can access this from the NfER website.

If you are hung up on the whole notion of general intelligence, as mistakenly are many on the left, then I do recommend

Adey P & Shayer M (Edited) (2002), Learning Intelligence, Open University Press


Adey P & Dillon J (Edited 2012), Bad Education, Open University Press

I hope this helps.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 05/02/2014 - 22:34

I omitted to answer your question. No, I do not believe that cognitive ability is fixed at birth through genetic inheritance. In fact it is not fixed at any age. However not all types of teaching enhance cognitive ability. Gove's favoured knowledge based behaviourism doesn't.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 10:35

Following on from Patrick's comments I would urge caution and care re the wording of contributions to the debate on Cognitive Abilities, FSM and compulsory education. Patrick is absolutely right to flag up the pitfall of confusing or merging correlation with causation. The two are markedly different. Additionally Roger is accurate to reflect that cognitive abilities are not static and be developed. That said, the earlier any deficit of developmental input is remedied the better and the quicker the improvements will be seen in a child/person.

For me other pertinent factors in what some might liken to a cognitive skills post code lottery, is that for a child in a family setting where there is a history of weak educational achievement are likely to inherit a mindset that militates against breaking that cycle. Therefore personal attitude, ambition and aspiration are also core factors in breaking underperformance.

In terms of nurturing cognitive skills and abilities there may well be a correlation between weak or low levels of parental nurturing skills that creates a barrier for the child:

It follows, for me at least, that achievement and performance are not solely underpinned by cognitive skills/abilities.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 11:24

I mostly agree with Andy and the content of his link. Starting with the link, although I acknowledge the (sometimes considerable) contribution of genetic intelligence, I do not think it sets any limit on cognitive development, so I don't like school mission statements that aim for 'all children to meet their potential'. I don't think potential is limited by genetic inheritance. This is of course, 'up to an (unknown) point'. I laugh at all these TV shows where contestants attempt to out compete each other in the strength and determination of their aspirations. No amount of striving and intensity of ambition would ever have made me into a good footballer or musician, even though I love football and music. Unfortunately, no talent.

I think Michael Faraday is a telling example. He was a humble lab technician. We will never know, but I doubt that he was a genetically endowed genius from birth. I believe his genius developed from his experience of developing brilliant experiments and demonstrations with electro-magnetism, which every pupil in a Nuffield Science equipped school can repeat for herself, if lucky enough to have a teacher that has read Shayer and Adey. Genius it certainly became, because as that great science communicator Brian Cox demonstrated in a recent TV program, there is a direct, unbroken, logical progression from Michael Faraday's simple electromagnetic experiments to Einstein's Relativity.

While of course recognising the advantages of parental nurture and support, I do think schools can do a lot to mitigate against poor parenting. The example is Mossbourne Academy. Having crucially obtained a balanced intake in terms of cognitive ability through its CATs driven banded admissions system, Mossbourne is still dominated by pupils from socially deprived backgrounds associated with developmental deficits. Although I think Sir Michael Wilshaw's faith in the positive contribution of uniforms and punishments is illusory, there is no doubt about the extraordinary lengths the school takes to compensate for the disadvantages of poor upbringing. To a very great extent, what a middle class child gets from home, a Mossbourne pupil gets from quality schooling support that few other schools can match.

This is the most important lesson from Mossbourne, to which the education debate owes a lot to Sir Michael. All ability comprehensive schools can do a great deal to compensate for an impoverished early upbringing. Michael Gove thinks its all to do with posh uniforms, teachers in suits and harsh punishments. He is wrong.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 14:20

As long as we never lose sight of the fact that correlation is a signpost not an answer: dig a little deeper and the tangible reasons for under achievement/under performance tend to reveal themselves.

It also strikes me that the correlation trend between socioeconomic factors may well mask the incidence of well qualified career minded parents and weak CAT scores (e.g. if both parents work long hours and have limited substantive contact with their child(ren) then that is likely to manifest in under developed cognitive skills/abilities).

"No amount of striving and intensity of ambition would ever have made me into a good footballer or musician, even though I love football and music. Unfortunately, no talent"

The questions are, how much did you want either of these, how much were you encouraged and supported, and how much did you practice? We may have been denied a latter day Stanley Matthews or modern Benjamin Britten ... ;-)

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 14:48

It was said of my football skills,"his pace is deceptive". I was much slower than I looked. Believe me I really, really wanted to play for Aston Villa. Failing that I would have settled for being a pop star.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 06/02/2014 - 15:30

As a Villa fan from youth I strongly suspect you would have fitted in seamlessly!

I don't recall Nobby Stiles or Norman Hunter being overly speedy ... and I recall that they used to say that punk rock was ageless ;-)

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