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.
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.