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The Learning Skills Foundation®

Making Learning Connections

Identifying and sharing new developments in learning, promoting their applications by connecting ideas with practice of all kinds


The aim of the Points of View column is to feature articles - usually written by a specialist in an area of academic research, a teacher or someone who knows the education world inside-out - which are thought provoking and stimulates discussion. Please feel free to react and put your own views on the published articles
by emailing office@learningskillsfoundation.com .

Are private schools really more successful than state schools?
by Paul Brett

The popular perception is that by involving the private sector more in the problems of under achievement and disaffection of students in the state sector that the problems of the state sector will somehow be miraculously solved. This manifests itself with the present government by its encouragement of independent schools to become involved in academies - where private individuals and independent schools sponsor and take a leading hand in state secondary schools; and by the Charity Commission’s test of public benefit where an independent school can only be deemed as genuinely charitable if it gives some wider advantage than just to its own pupils and parents - an example of this is that the school may have to offer free or subsidised places to those who would not normally be able to afford to attend the school. The latent effect of this second example could be that the brightest pupils are creamed off from state schools by the use of scholarships. Is the Government’s confidence in the private sector solving some of the state school problems reasonable? Is this approach likely to be successful?

I should say at the outset that I do not view all private education as good and all state education as poor. In fact, I believe that there are many lessons that private educators can learn from their state colleagues, particularly with regard to pastoral care, teaching a wide range of ability and motivating young people who are disaffected and would rather not be at school. However, I believe that state educators have a greater struggle than their colleagues in the independent sector. Why is this the case? To explain let’s look at the major differences between private and state schools.

An obvious first difference is the nature of the pupil intake. Private school pupils are self-selecting in that their parents can either afford or are motivated to pay for their children’s education which means that there is a parental  concern about getting something more or different from education: parents in the independent sector are invariably supportive of the school their children attend.

Unfortunately in the state sector this level of support is rarely as uniform across the whole parent body. Independent school parents are supportive for a number of reasons: they have made a conscious decision to opt out of the state system because they do not feel that the state sector will meet their child’s needs and their aspirations for the child; and because they are effectively paying twice for education (once through their taxes and again through school fees) which means that there is some financial penalty to their decision and consequently they behave more like consumers i.e. they demand high standards from the school and are more likely to defend the major spending decision that they have made.

In the state sector, Government policy has encouraged parents to be able to express a preference for the school they wish their child to attend this is intended to emulate the kind of choice that independent school parents benefit from. However, in the state sector all children have to be guaranteed a place in some school whereas this is not the case with private schools. This has lead to a false market being created where some state schools become very popular and cannot accommodate all of the pupils who wish to attend. Often within an area these schools are few so many parents have to settle for second, third or even lower choices. Whilst some parents actively engage in this market and are well informed there are an equal number who for whatever reason accept the default school i.e. the one where there are places or the school nearest to home because choice of school is not top of their list of concerns.  The effect of this is that some state schools do not always have totally supportive parent bodies and even those who are successful in the state school admissions lottery are not treated as consumers, with all of the attendant benefits, because all of the power is in the hands of the provider - the head teacher or Governing Body - who when the school is oversubscribed chose through their admission criteria which pupils will be admitted. Therefore, parents’ choice is often limited. This is important because a key determinate in education success is schools and parents driving in the same direction.

The second major difference is a cultural one. Independent schools know that their very existence depends on achieving excellence with a large enough group of pupils to attract the next generation of parents wanting to pay their fees. Therefore the whole culture is results-driven. Whereas quite often state schools, with the encouragement of central government, are far more concerned with “education for all”. While many teachers make great efforts to differentiate to meet the needs of different levels of ability  this often leads to a general dumbing down as the only way of delivering a broad and balanced curriculum. Both of these approaches have their merits but the independent school culture is easier for teachers and parents to rally behind and have a clearer focus because there is a single identifiable purpose with measurable results. Whereas for state schools where there is a wider range of abilities and set of motivations  a less clear focus is evident.

Private school parents have often had success at school and expect the school to be successful with their child. This expectation permeates the culture of the school. Unfortunately, in many state schools the desires and expectations of the parent body are not an essential driver for the school’s culture. This leads to a disconnect between parents and the school and the loss of the full benefit from parents working together to promote success and excellence. 

A third and key difference is that in private schools teachers are given the freedom to teach - something often denied to their state school colleagues.  This is partly because private schools are not constantly bombarded with new initiatives and next good ideas from the Government’s plethora of advisers - many of whom have got a fresh breath of life once removed from the frontline. Unfortunately, state schools find themselves constantly on shifting sands awaiting the next initiative. Teachers in private schools have the luxury of only taking on new initiatives when they are proved to be best practice; in the state sector the DCSF, QCA and its enforcer Ofsted have an unquenchable desire to meddle and to change often without proper academic evidence to support their latest good idea. The result of this is that on the whole teachers in the private sector are highly motivated and focused on achieving the best for their charges while some teachers in the state sector are confused, overwhelmed and demotivated by the constant challenges to their professionalism. This has a direct effect on the confidence of teachers to stretch and challenge their pupils.

A fourth difference is that on the whole, private schools have smaller class sizes which parents believe means that their child gets more individual attention; it certainly makes class management more straightforward. If the regulations, forms and gobbledegook which burden state schools were reduced there would be less need for the enormous administrative machinery at all levels which in turn would release money to be spent in the classroom and perhaps on reducing class sizes. I believe that there is enough money in the state system but that it is focussed wrongly. Part of the reason for this is that Whitehall wants to control and micromanage schools centrally and the only way that it can do this is with a sea of regulation and forms checking that their has been adherence to the regulation and then by employing an army of administrators and regulators checking compliance. In most private schools, teachers are free to teach and are only accountable to their head teacher and the parents who pay for their children’s education. At a stroke this removes much of the administration. However, it should be noted that the Government is trying by stealth to increasingly regulate private schools because it cannot contemplate having anything outside of its control. It is doing this by tightening regulations regarding the opening of independent schools where the school’s policies and intended curriculum are approved and Ofsted are becoming increasingly involved in the inspection of independent schools, if they are not the subject of other inspection regimes.

Private schools are not necessarily better but are different from state schools. Private schools have the luxury of purity of purpose to achieve excellence and the best for pupils in their care. Too often state schools are distracted by society’s wider problems of having to manage the disaffected, the interference of central government and its advisors and a lack of support from home. I believe that politicians are missing the key points about the differences. Their naďve view appears to be that if you pick up all of the teaching staff and systems from a successful independent school and put them into a failing inner city school then that school would be transformed. I would be willing to wager large sums of money that this would not be the case or if it were the case it would take a considerable time to show any effect. However, there are lessons to be learned from the private sector which would benefit the state sector: firstly, give teachers the freedom to teach rather than dealing with countless distractions of some adviser’s latest brainwave; secondly motivate and incentivise parents to become more engaged with schools and thereby take more responsibility for their children in schools; thirdly, work with state schools to develop good customer relations strategies so that they treat every parent as being important to their survival; and finally, recognise that schools are best run and controlled locally not from Whitehall. I think that these four steps would go some way towards closing the perception gap between private and state school.

by Paul Brett

Our children are being disadvantaged by an education system which, only fifty years ago, was admired and emulated throughout the world. It now underperforms in international league tables, has one of the most demoralized workforces in any sector of the economy and is a toy of governments. Indeed, to my mind there is a direct correlation between the amount of political interference and the decline in the education system. Teachers and teaching are now so heavily controlled by central government that they are losing the ability to teach children naturally and the results and the children suffer.

At the root of this is a question which every generation must address: why educate? Politicians of this generation seem to think it only worth educating young people in subjects and on issues which can be measured. Remember the long-forgotten industry practice of ‘scientific management’ where time and motion studies dominated management decisions? It was a practice that fell into disrepute when it was discovered that many of the most important matters could not be scientifically measured. Yet, politicians persist with the belief that measurement in education is all: a view which has distorted the curriculum and the way that teachers behave. But surely there are other hugely significant considerations here? It is of course important that every child can read, write and be academically aware but should this be exclusively what schools are concerned with? Should education not also help to produce young people who are socially and economically active, who have strong values, have strong self-awareness and self-confidence and recognise the role and responsibilities that an individual has within a community? If we asked teachers whether they have been helped or hindered in this latter task by the National Curriculum and Attainment testing, I wonder what their answer would be?

No, schools have become distanced from parents, their communities and wider society because of successive Governments’ insistence on the idea that one system is appropriate for everyone (which of course makes testing and measuring much easier). One result of this is that we as a society seem incapable of reacting in any other way than negatively to every story about education: even excellent examination results are turned into another example of ‘dumbing down’. If you listen to industry and employer bodies such as the CBI and Institute of Directors they have little positive to say about schools. It is also the case that in some areas the middle classes are opting in their droves for the perceived safety of private education which in turn puts further pressure on state schools -as sure an indication as any that state education and society are being pushed apart.

We are in desperate need of a new approach to curricular and examination reform to reflect the new landscape that technology allows us to educate in. And who is qualified to undertake such reforms? The Government clearly feels it is yet it would never dare advocate one method of brain surgery over another - so why does the Government feel that it has the expertise to tamper with something as sensitive as the curriculum? Yet, tamper it does continually. More testing, more measurable outcomes seem to be the thrust of its tampering - no thought as to why children go to school in the first place.

A time lord visiting from the Victorian era would probably see little difference between schools then and now. Admittedly, there would be some different structures and some different subject content but the basic structure of teachers working with a heavily knowledge-based curriculum remains as does the principal method of instruction - only technology has allowed white chalk to be replaced with a white board. One other difference is that teachers probably had more freedom to teach what they thought appropriate in the past! I am not arguing that this is not appropriate in many subject areas rather that we are failing to embrace the fact that technology gives us access to a large part of human knowledge at the click of a mouse. The opportunity to develop a curriculum that is less heavily reliant on straight knowledge accumulation is here and now. The questions we should be asking are: Are we giving enough emphasis to skills training? Are we spending enough time on developing values and social responsibility? Is there enough awe and wonder in schools so that young people become adults who want to continue learning? Are we creating motivated and inspired young people who want to change the world and their lives for the better?

So many questions arise out of any re-assessment of this fundamental question ‘why educate?’ but the biggest crime of all is the failure of successive governments in the past thirty years to address it at all.

In forthcoming pages of Points of View I will address in more detail the related topics of Special Education Needs pupils, who should control education and the whole question ‘why educate?’. For now though think what you want from our education system: as far as our society is concerned it matters more than just about anything else.

Paul Brett

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