Why are independent schools so much better than state schools?
Last week, Michael Gove claimed that the enormous gulf in achievement between independent and state school pupils is “morally indefensible”. He pointed to the disproportionate dominance of former private school pupils in the cabinet, the shadow cabinet, acting, comedy, even sport, concluding “When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit, then we know we are not making the most of all our nation’s talents.”
Gove’s observation is absolutely correct. Only 7 percent of British children go to independent schools, yet they make up 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, and 45% of top civil servants. Not only are these figures high, they are growing. As research from the Sutton Trust shows, in recent years social mobility in Britain has gone into decline.
Unfortunately, Gove did not attempt to answer why this troublesome state of affairs exists. Having been educated at a public school, before becoming a teacher at an inner-city state school, I feel I may be able to offer an explanation.
Many claim that the difference is due to the superior material resources of independent schools. However, after New Labour’s hikes in government spending, the education of an average state school pupil costs £6,200 a year. This may be less than the average fees at an independent day school (£11,200) but considering how much of that money is spent on extra-curricular activities and bursaries for scholarship pupils, the difference is not large enough to explain away the gulf in academic achievement.
Equally, it is often claimed that independent schools do better because of the social background of their pupils. It is argued that such schools bring together well-adjusted children, with supportive parents and stable home lives to the detriment of state schools who miss out on their benign influence. However, this argument is monstrously condescending towards the 93% of British children who go to state schools (and their families). It is wrong to assume that teenagers at independent schools are universally angelic. The school where I teach, and the school where I was a pupil, are both made up of many bright, determined pupils, and many difficult, lazy pupils.
The great difference is what happens to these pupils once they arrive at school. At the school I attended, there was a strong behaviour policy and senior staff who were respected, even feared, as authority figures. The secondary school where I teach is the educational equivalent of a failed state: rules exist but are not enforced, and pupils daily exhibit atrocious behaviour safe in the knowledge that consequences are unlikely. At the school I attended, we were pushed to succeed with plenty of homework, regular assessment and (often) unforgiving reports. At the school where I teach homework is non-existent, assessment is slack and reports are not allowed to harm the self-esteem of the pupils. Perhaps most significantly, my education at a public school was pervaded with a sense of the virtue of academic study, something totally alien to the secondary school where I now work.
Crucially, none of the differences listed above are a question of material resources. Instead, they are a question of philosophy. The philosophy that pervades so many state schools in Britain can neatly be summed up as ‘progressive education’, and is the poisoned well causing so many to fail. The real reason why independent schools so comprehensively outperform the state sector is that they still adhere to a traditional vision of schooling.
An educational culture war swept the state sector during the 1960s and 1970s, ending with the conclusive victory of the orthodoxy of progressive education. With a few notable exceptions, independent schools have remained blithely indifferent to such ideas and continued to operate in a ‘traditional’ manner, enforcing discipline, praising achievement, and teaching from the front. As a result, such schools remain a national success story, whilst British state schools have progressed from one crisis to another. Is it any wonder that 57% of British parents said that, if they could afford it, they would send their child to a private school?
With this explanation in mind, it is highly revealing that the state schools that have made enormous strides in the last few years have done so by emulating the traditional ethos and academic spirit of private schools. Burlington Danes in Hammersmith, which re-opened as an Academy in 2006, is an inspiring example of the successes this can bring. The school operate with a Christian ethos, a house system, impeccable uniform, strong discipline and over an hour of homework a day. It is now one of the most improved schools in the country: 75% of its pupils achieved five good GCSEs in 2011, compared with 31% in 2006. Such a development has been made possible by the groundbreaking policy of free schools and academies. Freed from control of LEAs, these schools are able to pursue more traditional modes of schooling, in some cases even calling in the help of independent schools. Toby Young’s West London Free School is a perfect example: it offers Latin, competitive sports and a smart uniform, and this year received nine applicants for each of its 120 places.
Burdened by the progressive education orthodoxy, state schools have been underachieving for far too long. Finally, they are realising that to close the gap on independent schools they will have to start playing them at their own game.