Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Independent Schools are too successful - so let's ban them . . . . .

In a recent post on Schoolgate, the TimesOnline education blog, Kevin Rooney, a politics teacher and Head of Social Science at a comprehensive school in Hertfordshire, argues Why Private Schools should be banned.
It’s important to stress that mine is not the old-style Labourite opposition to private schools on class terms that Brown was indulging in. And nor do I blame anyone who having been refused a place in a decent state school chooses to make huge sacrifices to buy the decent education that the state has denied their child. My opposition to private schools is rooted in my love of education and belief in the principle of the best education for all. It’s not about dumbing down and removing the best education in the country – but about wising up and opening the doors of the best schools to all.

Let’s have Eton’s for all, let’s really aim for a high quality education on a par with the best private schools for every child. Let’s storm the private schools like the French once stormed the Bastille and make those wonderful private schools the property of us all, where every child gets to enjoy such fantastic facilities and resources.
I applaud the idealism of this argument. As a product of the Maintained sector having spent my whole career working in Independent schools, I know better than most the difference that at good education can make.

At its heart, Kevin Rooney's argument is more of an attack on the quality of provision in the Maintained Sector than it is on Independent Schools. The State-funded education system has failed millions of young people over the past twenty years and continues to do so. The majority of Independent Schools would be out of business if the Maintained Sector provision in their area were up to scratch, as most parents would rather spend their hard earned [post-tax] cash on something other than education.

But there is more to this debate than the politics of envy. It is too simplistic to point to top end boarding schools and suggest that the reason for the success of Independent schools is that they have superior facilities. In many cases, it simply is not the case. Successive governments have invested in the Maintained sector schools, first increasing teaching salaries, and more recently with the Building Schools for the Future programme, the facilities gap has closed. And yet independent school continue to be successful.

In his piece in today's Times [Factory schools don’t give real education] Anthony Seldon identifies some significant areas of difference between the Maintained and Independent sectors. However, he does not give due weight to one key factor - and that is the role of parents. I believe that parents are the most important single factor in the success of Independent schools. Fundamentally it is their commitment to education that ensures that their success. Parents see education as an investment and most are keen to see a return - this is the key.

Parental support manifests itself in a number of important ways. It is they who transmit the importance of education to their children. It is they who have high expectations and high aspirations for their children. It is they who reinforce the need for discipline and can support the school; and, on a practical level, it is they who ensure that pupils do their homework. Most importantly, parents demand high standards of Independent schools - it is parents who insist on high standards and it is they who reward or punish by being vocal [either to the school or on the dinner party circuit] about a school's performance. Ultimately parents ensure that the laws of supply and demand apply and successful schools prosper and unsuccessful ones struggle or go to the wall.

Of course many of these factors apply to parents in the Maintained sector too. However, as the recent Sutton Trust report on Evidence of educational support outside of School suggests, parental education and occupation are key factors in whether or not a child is more likely to read or to do their homework. Given that a significant proportion of graduate professionals and managers choose to send their children to Independent schools, it is no surprise that these schools are disproportionately successful.

Kevin Rooney laments the fact that 7% of pupils are privately educated and yet take half the places at top Universities like Oxford and Cambridge. He should not be surprised for two reasons. First, according to the 2006 OECD PISA survey, UK independent schools are the best schools in the world, and thus one would expect our top universities to see them as a rich vein for recruitment. Secondly, Government performance indicators ensure that the focus of Maintained sector schools is on the C/D border and thus a successful Maintained sector school is one that maximises the number of passes at GCSE A*-C, whereas the Independent sector remains the guardian of excellence - the real currency for these schools is the percentage of A*/A at GCSE and average UCAS points at A-level. Independent schools make no apology for aiming high and stretching the brightest - such a system will inevitably produce a disproportionately greater number of top students, who gain A*s at GCSE and A-level and are awarded places at Oxford and Cambridge.

We all look forward to the day when every school in Britain is as good as Eton, but until that time. let's celebrate what the Independent sector as the world-class institution that it is rather than just banning it because it is too successful.

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    I think we really do agree - strangely! This is a great, thoughtful post, most of which I could have written (yes, honestly). I definitely agree that parents are key, and it's very hard to see how you can change parental attitudes etc. But I don't think that means we should give up. And if you don't have enough money, but you do really care about your child's education, you just become envious of the private sector.
    Thanks for the link and mention anyway.