Enrolments at independent schools have not kept pace with rising pupil numbers in England

Janet Downs's picture

The number of pupils at schools affiliated to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) has risen, says the ISC.   Pupil numbers in 1,249 schools which completed the 2016 ISC census rose by 0.1%. 

But the latest Department for Education data* says the number of school age pupils in England has risen by 1.3%.  This suggests enrolment at ISC schools is not keeping pace with the rise in the school age population.

55% of ISC schools are selective, the ISC report says. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that exam results are higher than in the state sector where there are few selective schools.   But the advantage doesn’t seem to last.   Research has found that state-educated pupils outperform their equally qualified peers from independent schools at university

The ISC cites the recent Durham University comparison of achievement between state and independent pupils.   When this was published, the ISC said:

‘Attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16’.

But the report’s analysis was hedged by several warnings and the researchers' analysis of available literature found:

'...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.’

In any case, the names of independent schools used in this state v private comparison were given to Durham by the ISC.  If all ISC schools were included in the list (and we don’t know that), then Durham would have compared a group of schools where 55% select their pupils with a state system which, apart from a few schools, does not.  This is not comparing like with like.

ISC schools are helping state schools, the report says.  160,000 state pupils benefit from such partnerships.   There are over 7.5 million state-educated pupils in England but the ISC says benefiting just 160,000 shows independent schools have a public benefit which justifies charitable status.

A record number of bursaries have been offered to help ‘middle class’ parents pay fees, says the ISC.  According to the Financial Times, bursaries sometimes have odd criteria.  Eltham College, London, offers 50% reduction to the offspring of ‘chemists, travelling salesmen and grocers’, while children of pub landlords, those with an ‘aptitude for fencing’ or ones with ‘environmental awareness’ can claim discount at other fee-charging schools.

These are oddities, of course.  But the fact remains that in 55% of ISC schools, any reduction in fees (if available) would only be offered to ‘poor’ children with high ability.   Children of average or low ability, middle class or not, would be rejected.

*Figures for state schools were from the January 2015 census.  The data for 2016 has not yet been published.

CORRECTION  3 May 2015 The article originally said the researchers had concluded the 'the jury was still out...'.    This wasn't actually the conclusion based on the researchers' survey which compared an unknown list of ISC private schools with the entire state sector but their assessment of the available literature.  This has been corrected.  The researchers' own findings were hedged by limitations: (see page 42) including a 'significant' one relating to the '0.64 grade estimate of independent school advantage':

'...we are unable to give a confident and precise estimate of the causal effect of attending an independent school.... We therefore advise that this estimate be viewed with caution. Moreover, it seems likely that any unobserved differences between pupils in the two sectors might well reduce this estimate, were they to be included.'






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Michael Pyke's picture
Fri, 29/04/2016 - 18:02

This fall off is not surprising as increasingly fewer parents can afford the fees and private schools are increasingly looking to wealthy families in China and the like to make good the shortfall.  However, the families of these children do not expect to be paying for the rather basic ,living conditions traditionally associated with English private schools.  So the schools are having to invest heavily in upgrades of bedrooms etc.  This in turn pushes up the fees, contributing to a vicious spiral.  That's why such as "The Tatler" have started to promote (some) state schools. 

ian thompson's picture
Mon, 02/05/2016 - 14:11

Thanks for your interesting interpretation Janet, I have just a few minor points to make.

In 2015 the number of pupils in fifth forms of state funded schools was 544,000, but for sixth forms the number was only 227,000 , making the state sector substantially more selective than the private sector.

The total number of ISC schools has increased but the 0.1% figure that you quote does not include the new schools.

The Durham study did not conclude that 'the jury is still out', you took that quotation from their summary of older research. There actual conclusion was that 'similar students achieve more in independent schools than in state schools'. They also provided conclusive evidence that their, very large samples, were representative of the two educational sectors.

As for achievement at university - well they don't have the same A levels do they? Not even the same ball-park. In fact the average state educated pupil doesn't have any A levels at all while the average privately educated pupil achieves BBB at A level.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/05/2016 - 08:48

Ian - thank you for pointing out my error re the researchers' conclusion.  This has now been corrected.  I have also clarified the report's limitations.


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/05/2016 - 08:49

Ian - I presume your sixth form figures apply only to academic sixth forms which are selective by their nature.  A level courses are only open to those with the required standard of GCSEs.   Last year 57.1% of state school pupils achieved 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English.  In theory, this proportion could have proceeded to A level courses.   Although you're correct that 227,000 is less than 57.1%, not all pupils wish to do A levels.   Your comparison with the private sector is, however, flawed.  Private schools pre-16 are far more likely to already be selective than state schools.  It would follow, then, that more private school pupils would proceed to sixth form because they're pre-selected.


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/05/2016 - 08:53

Ian - your comment about the 'average state educated pupil' not having A levels  hinges on what actually is an 'average state educated pupil'.   If you're referring to all state educated pupils, then you are describing pupils who span the entire ability range.  But 55% of ISC schools are selective and therefore do not cater for the entire ability range.  If, however, you're referring to the 'average state education pupil in an academic sixth form', then your assertion that they don't have A levels collapses.  

While it's true the average A level grade in 2015 by state educated A level pupils is C, this average grade only rising to C+ when ALL schools and colleges are included.  Nevertheless,  11% of state-educated sixth-formers achieved AAB or higher in at least 2 facilitating subjects in 2015.  That's far fewer than ISC sixth-formers, of course.  In 2013/14, 28.4% of ISC sixth-formers achieved three A*-A grades at A level compared with just 8.1% in state comprehensives.  But if we compare ISC schools with state grammars, we can see the proportion gaining these three grades was only 1.4% lower at 27%.*  This suggests pupils with high GCSE grades are likely to outperform sixth-formers accepted with the bare minimum - grade Cs (who would have thought it?).

If you look at the research re degree quality, you will see the researchers compared pupils with the same A level achievement.  They found, as I've already pointed out, that state educated pupils outperformed their equally-qualified peers from private schools at university (at Oxbridge, it made no difference).

*Figures here.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/05/2016 - 09:03

Ian - while it's true the schools newly-affiliated to the ISC weren't included in the ISC data, the data for state schools was also lagging.  That's because the data from the state schools 2016 census hasn't been published yet.  I presume the ISC schools which completed the 2016 census were in operation in 2015, so the comparison with DfE data for state schools in 2015 is valid.

ian thompson's picture
Tue, 03/05/2016 - 13:50

Thank you for those points. My comments related to the sectors in their entirety. The proportion of selective schools is therefore irrelevant because there are more than enough non-selective schools to ensure that both sectors span the whole ability range, including in the private sector, 68,441 pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities.

The percentage of pupils achieving 5 A*-Cs at GCSE is not a useful guide to the probability of progression to sixth form because entry to many comprehensive school sixth forms requires a minimum of 5Bs and not Cs at GCSE.

Considering that 90% of pupils in the private sector attempt A level as opposed to only the top 40% of state educated pupils, it is quite remarkable that the performance difference at degree level, between students with the same middling A levels, is only 6%. Much as I try, as a product myself of state education, I can see no way that that is a good advertisement for the state sector.

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