Two months ago the media was full of research by Durham University which suggested attending a private school equalled two years extra education at age 16 or 0.64 of a GCSE grade. That conclusion was seized upon by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) who had commissioned the report to claim the superiority of private schools.
But the ISC and media coverage missed researchers’ warnings. The results weren’t as clear cut as headlines claimed. The researchers studied existing literature which considered the existence of any private school advantage. The conclusions in the literature were inconclusive: the 'jury is still out' on whether attending a private school enhanced academic achievement. And our Henry Stewart cast doubt on the assertion that 0.64 of a GCSE grade equalled two extra years schooling.
I wanted to know whether the Durham researchers looked at GCSE results from ALL independent schools or only those who were members of groups such as the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) for which ISC acts as an umbrella. Membership of these groups is not open to all fee-charging schools but restricted to those of a particular 'quality'. If the research were limited solely to schools in these affiliated groups, then this would surely affect the results. There are over 1000 independent schools which are not members of such organisations. If these non-affiliated schools were included then it would likely reduce the alleged independent schools advantage.
The report itself gave a clue. It said: ‘The set of independent schools involved in the study were defined by the ISC. They provided a list of independent schools.’
This confirms that the independent schools used for comparison were chosen by the ISC, the report’s commissioners.
I wanted to find out if this list contained non-affiliated schools and, if so, how many. So I sent a Freedom of Information request to Durham University. This asked for the following:
1 How many affiliated independent schools were surveyed.
2 How many non-affiliated independent schools were surveyed.
3 The proportion of surveyed independent schools which selected their intake for ability.
The University replied saying it did not have the information I requested.
Since Durham University claims not to have this data then I can only presume the independent schools were ones affiliated to the ISC and, being mostly selective, were likely to have GCSE results higher than state schools which cater for the whole ability range.
When the report was published, Julie Robinson, General Secretary of ISC, acknowledged it was difficult to compare fee-charging and state-funded schools and there was ‘much excellence to be seen in school of all types’. But she added that the ‘ground-breaking report from such a world-renowned and respected research unit at Durham University really does give us solid ground to say that based on academic results, independent schools are worth paying for.’
But if the independent schools used for comparison were mostly those who select for ability and did not include non-affiliated schools, then how can Durham’s research be described as ‘solid evidence’ that schools in the independent sector are ‘worth paying for’?
UPDATE 17 May 2016. We were right to be sceptical about this ISC commission report. Se analysis by Nick Hassey, Teach First, on the BERA blog.
The above article has been amended to make it clear the conclusion that the jury was still out about any private school advantage was from the literature which was studied by the researchers.