The ‘Jury is still out’ on whether going to private schools enhance academic achievements, say researchers

Janet Downs's picture

‘Attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16, new research reveals,’ says the Independent Schools Council in its press release about the findings of research it commissioned from the University of Durham.

But the tentative conclusion of the researchers was surrounded by caveats.  These seem to have been missed by the ISC and media comments on this story (see here and here).

The researchers warn their estimations could be affected by factors not taken into account during their analysis.  This increased the possibility of overstating the effects of private schooling:

'It is possible that this is an overestimate of any genuine causal effect of attending an Independent school because of unobserved factors that would have affected the estimate.'

Researchers added:

'...the jury is still out with regard to the true extent to which attendance at independent schools in England enhance the academic achievements of students when student and school-level differences are accounted for.'

The report was based on both number crunching and trawling the existing literature assessing the difference in outcomes of privately educated and state educated pupils.  But there was one notable omission from the latter: OECD analysis following the 2009 PISA tests.  The OECD found that when socio-economic background was factored in, UK public (ie state) schools outperformed UK private schools by 20 score points on the reading scale.  This is way above the OECD average of 7 score points in favour of public schools. 

If, as this report appears to indicate (caveats notwithstanding) that pupils from independent schools outperform state educated pupils by two years, then it should be expected this advantage would carry forward to university.   But when privately educated pupils graduate they're outperformed by their similarly qualified peers from state schools.   Research by the University of Cambridge found students from different UK educational backgrounds do equally well at Cambridge.  And Oxford researchers came to the same conclusion: '...those who do get in [to Oxford], private school students perform about as well as state school students.'

The Oxford researchers raised the question about whether those state pupils who did NOT gain a place at Oxford would have achieved the same degree as those private pupils who DID get in. They concluded the more likelihood of private school pupils actually gaining a place was 'short-term teaching effects upon the secondary school grades of private school students'.  

If the higher grades earned by private school pupils at secondary level were described by Oxford researchers as ‘short term’ and not lasting then parents who send their children to private schools might be asking if the considerable expense is worth it.

UPDATE 28 February 2016.  I left two comments (posting as ex-secondary modern teacher) on the HMC website pointing out that (a) the Durham report did not prove 'beyond reasonable doubt that independent schools add significant value to children’s education' because it said 'the jury is out', and (b) the OECD found UK state schools outperformed UK private schools on the reading scale when socio-economic background was factored in.  I left the comments waiting moderation.  I've just checked and neither of my comments have been published and the note about waiting for moderation has gone.




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Michael Pyke's picture
Fri, 26/02/2016 - 16:21

Without seeing the published work, we can't be sure if the researchers actually compared like with like.  Did the researchers have a control group in the state system with the same socio-economic profile and the same kind of CAB scores as those in the private system?  Also, why choose GCSE as the basis for measurement?  And how do the researchers justify the idea that two-thirds of a GCSE grade equates to two years of schooling?  What we do know is that these effects do not seem to carry over into Higher Education.

Rebecca Allen of Datalab, who is usually quite cautious in her judgements, suggests that the differences found by the researchers are probably due to private school pupils being better motivated and having better access to economic and social capital: "Is this just telling us that families who spend a lot of money on private schools value education highly?  I'm sure they have the social and economic capital to support their children in the home to a greater extent than (is available to) many typical children in state schools".   

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/02/2016 - 09:48

The report said 'Prior academic ability was the single highest contributing factor to the GCSE outcome. It increased the outcome significantly for all subjects'.  This is hardly a world-shattering observation.

At the same time the researchers found disadvantage depressed scores:  'Higher deprivation decreased both PIPS*  Year 4 and GCSE outcomes.'  It's unlikely there would have been many 'disadvantaged' children at ISC independent schools (if there are any it would be those selected for their high ability and not, as in state schools, those of middle or below-average ability).

The researchers accounted for many factors (I'm not a statistician and the description of the methodology in the report went over my head) but they admitted there may have been other factors which they hadn't recognised or accounted for.  They said this may have skewed results in favour of the private schools.

*Performance Indicators In Primary Schools assessments produced by Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University, which produced the report under discussion

Nigel Ford's picture
Sat, 27/02/2016 - 08:28

For me, to pay £75K of private schooling fees for years 7-11, just for barely 2/3rds of a grade better at GCSE subjects, couldn't represent worse value for money.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/02/2016 - 09:28

And, as I said, this slightly higher grade doesn't seem to have lasted when the pupils graduate.

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