Why are independent schools so much better than state schools? #2

My most popular blog post ever in terms of hits is a piece I wrote last May, entitled ‘Why are independent schools so much better than state schools?’ I questioned the assumption that independent schools do better solely because they have more money, and pupils with a higher level of ‘social capital’. Whilst these factors are influential, they are far from the whole story.

Independent schools: elimination is not the answer, emulation is.

Independent schools: elimination is not the answer, emulation is.

The gulf in achievement has as much to do with philosophy as it has to do with finance. Whilst independent schools by and large uphold a ‘traditional’ idea of education, the state sector is burdened with the destructive shibboleths of ‘progressive’ education. Admittedly, my only evidence for this was an anecdotal account of having been educated at an independent school, before becoming a history teacher at a state secondary school. I wrote,

“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.”

Since writing that, I have been introduced to a report which provides more solid evidence for such an argument. Dr Jo Saxton, the author of Twenty-Two Things Excellent Schools do, has collected information about the teaching methods shared by seven high performing independent preparatory schools around the country. I would recommend any interested teacher to read the whole report, but here are some highlights:

  • “Through everything ran the understanding that education was first about content, accuracy and high standards, and only then about skills. What I saw was schools giving primacy to knowledge.”
  • “Without exception, the schools employed synthetic phonics to teach reading.”
  • “Times-tables were memorised and practiced frequently: times-tables were learned by rote and frequently tested (in innovative as well as conventional ways!).”
  • “Testing: forms of formal and informal testing and examination were used.”
  • “All of the schools placed high value on good behaviour, rewarding both academic and sporting success, and directing competition to reward groups over individuals. Every single one of the seven schools used a vertical ‘House’ system (where each child belongs to one ‘house’ for their whole life at the school), to support and link these elements.”

Such practices are by no means unique to the independent sector. However, ‘progressive’ practices do dominate the state sector, and those schools that contradict them are counter-cultural. Michael Wilshaw’s much feted former school Mossbourne Academy has frequently been compared to a private school, for its emphasis on uniform, discipline, competition and hard work. To his credit, Wilshaw is not shy about recognising that state schools must learn from the independent sector. Last month he wrote, “The independent sector has been very good over many years at guiding character and giving pupils a sense of self-esteem…. we need to develop that same character- building in the state sector.”

Despite all this, apologists for the status quo in state schools still argue that these differences in pedagogy and philosophy are unimportant, and socio-economic background explains everything. However, if apologists are to really follow through on such logic, they must also believe that independent schools would in fact do even better if they adopted the lax discipline, skills-based learning and anti-didacticism so common in the state sector. This strikes me as preposterous.

Worse still, is the argument that what works in independent schools cannot be applied to state schools. This was evident in a monstrously condescending article written by Barbarra Ellen in the Observer last month. She argued against introducing competitive debating to state schools, writing “you can’t just put debating societies into state schools and declare the problems of social inarticulacy and lack of confidence miraculously solved. This would be like Sellotaping a dog’s tail on to a cat and willing it to wag.”

She went on to write that ‘debating skills’ would get you glassed in the average British pub, and the “moppets on X Factor” seem to be pretty confident speakers anyway. The soft bigotry of low expectations does not even come close to describing such thinking. I run a debating club at the inner-city school where I teach, and see first hand the wonderful benefits it brings to the pupils. Without wanting to sound hysterical, Ellen should be ashamed with herself for promoting such inverse snobbery.

In 1973 the Labour Shadow Education Secretary Roy Hattersley addressed a conference of independent school heads. He warned them “I must, above all else, leave you with no doubts about the serious intention initially to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country.” Thankfully, we now seem to be taking a more constructive approach to the superiority of private education. Wellington College has set up an academy, Eton are soon to do so, and in Newham a group of pupils are soon to take their AS levels at a selective sixth form college sponsored and staffed by a collection of independent schools. Apologists for state schools must swallow their pride and accept that in terms of pedagogy and philosophy, they have much to learn from the independent sector.


~ by goodbyemisterhunter on March 2, 2013.

10 Responses to “Why are independent schools so much better than state schools? #2”

  1. If only State schools could be selective!
    More importantly, surely independent (I don’t like that term as they are not independent of a religion etc which makes them very dependent) schools benefit from having parents in agreement with the foundation philosophy. There is an intellectual unity which is missing from the non-selective, compulsory to attend State school. It seems that much of a teacher’s time is spent in attempting to generate a unified sense of purpose amongst students before the process of education can even start. As for the ideal of having education continue after the bell has rung !!!!
    John Davies

  2. I think you are missing one point here. It is not just the independent schools that provide effective teaching to a privileged minority. Most of the time the grammar schools do as well. And again, the argument is made that the results stem only from the intake rather than from the teaching. Also we again hear the argument that those schools must be destroyed rather than learnt from.

    Class and equality is an issue here, but the issue should be framed along the lines of asking “why are teachers teaching the less well-off forced to teach badly?”

  3. I have worked in both sectors. The two main reasons Independent schools can be better are that they are selective and if you don’t fit in with the ethos you are asked to look elsewhere.

  4. I discovered really recently that there is a chasm between value added statistics for private schools and those for state. I had no idea but it seems that using the same meansures most private schools do better than most state schools. The starkness of the results took me by surprise. Perhaps class sizes are a factor, whatever the research says. What is clear is that provate schools, get much better value added scores despite using pretty traditional methods.

  5. I hate to say it but the same research I did on value added revealed that grammar schools do not do as well as private schools. My middle of the road independent school that is barely selective (in practice that means most students are from the top 50 percent with a minority of much lower ability) gets better results than most grammar schools. That is in terms of raw results at A Level and value added. This seemed a general trend (noted by the Good Schools Guide in their analysis for parents of grammar versus private) and I would genuinely appreciate if anyone knows why such selective schools as grammars can’t compete with much less selective independents. It can’t all be down to class sizes surely?

    • Why on earth shouldn’t it be down to class size? Whatever some poxy study might show, the smaller the class, the more attention each child gets from the teacher and the better the teacher gets to know that child. It’s hardly rocket science. As a reductio ad absurdum, if class size didn’t matter, there’d be no point using one-to-one tuition for remedial or booster work, would there?

  6. Excellent and well thought out post. Has only confirmed everything I have seen at my daughter’s state school — lack of homework, no challenges, no independent research, no culture of clubs and games, slack assessment. Criticism is carefully coded and almost impossible to decipher.

  7. Cunning Fox I don’t entirely disagree but some very successful private schools have quite large class sizes and my understanding was there was quite a large body of research re class sizes as outlined by Hattie. I think private school students get much more practice and feedback because the fact we are used to small classes means we tend to set much more homework as we can physically get it marked. Therefore the kids end up working harder so it isn’t the number of them sitting in front of the teacher as such, which explains the research. My gut feeling is that if state schools had smaller class sizes but carried on otherwise the same, results wouldn’t change that much. I feel that the endless obsession with outstanding lessons in state schools is barking up the wrong tree as otherwise private schools could not possibly compare as favourably with state as lessons are generally way more ‘traditonal’.

  8. I wonder if instead of making lessons even more exciting in state schools in an effort to improve learning kids should just be made to do more work?That strikes me as the crucial difference state v. private and it is sort of down to class size but also school ethos and teaching culture.

  9. […] independent schools that has made such an internationally regarded success. See here, and here. Wiser voices on the left recognise this. I recently read Labour MP David Lammy’s book on the […]

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