Michael Gove has insisted that state schools should be more like private schools, his argument misses the point.
If he were serious, then this announcement would have been followed by a declaration to increase per pupil funding at state schools by 300 percent, to bring their budgets in line with those in the private sector, but of course, he didn’t.
How about plans to allow all state schools to limit their intake to only the exceptionally talented, or perhaps a system that would allow the schools to ensure the majority of students were of a high socio-economic status?
Surely, this should be included – if only to level the playing field? Nope. That wasn’t included either.
A number of papers have shown that, in most cases, the impact of the school you attend on attainment is minimal. The pupils who make it into private schools are normally, at the very least, above-average students, and often come from financially secure backgrounds.
Two studies, one conducted by the Sutton Trust, the other by Cardiff University, found that state school pupils actually go on to outperform independent ones at university, as well as being less likely to drop out.
Of course average attainment seems higher at private schools during A-Levels and GCSEs – they can cherry pick their intake, scooping out the crème-de-le-crème, and leaving the rest to the state sector.
To suggest that their higher average grades are the result of superior teaching methods is to completely miss the point.
The grades are as high as they are because the pupils would not have been accepted into the school if they didn’t stand a good chance of meeting, and thus maintaining, that standard.
The pupils are there because of their pre-existing ability, coupled, in a large number of cases, with their family’s wealth; further to this, the students are surrounded by other pupils to whom this situation also applies.
Through mixing with other similarly ‘well-off’ pupils, students at private schools build up a rooster of high-level contacts, which is simply out of reach for most state school pupils.
So what about the opposite? What if there were no private schools? What if everyone went to the same school, and everyone was able to benefit from the contacts made through their peers?
What if instead of advising state schools to look to selective schools for advice on raising the performance of their relatively poorer students, the Secretary of State for Education actually outlawed them?
That is what happened in Finland after the 1970s. Nowadays, it has no selective or fee-paying schools, nor does it have league tables or any external exams until the age of 18.
Finland is widely regarded as having one of the most successful systems of education in the world.
The OECD reports that “older Finns, perform at around the average… while younger Finns are, together with young adults from Japan, Korea, and the Netherlands, among today’s top performers.”
Finland also has one of the most equal income distributions in the world. The UK has one of the most unequal.
That is not to say that the morning after abolishing private schools everyone would wake up to a new society with perfect equality, but would allowing state schools to take on a higher number of so-called ‘priviledged’ students be such a bad thing?
Teachers at private schools are by no means better by default, in fact, on a number of levels they have a relatively easier ride.
Teaching mixed ability kids from a range of backgrounds is very different to teaching a group of A*-B pupils, many of whom having a private tutor on the side, Mr. Gove would do well to remember that.
If the UK wants to increase its global competitiveness, the answer lies, not in private schools, but in increased investment in state schools.
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