Saturday, 2 November 2013

What makes British public schools so special?

It appears to have been accepted almost as a truism that public (independent) schools in the UK provide a better quality of education than their State equivalents. So prevalent has this idea become that the only issues for debate appear to be how fair or otherwise it is that only those who can afford to pay have access to this superior education and how the State sector can learn from the brilliance of the Great British public schools. And on the face of it this would appear to be a reasonable truism. Independent schools on average outperform the State sector in most areas, particularly achievement at A level and progression to Russel Group universities.

A little digging weakens the conclusion somewhat: this OECD report for instance recognises that once socio-economic factors are taken into account independent schools in the UK actually underperform as compared to the State sector in their PISA reading test, and this report (amongst others) shows that a higher proportion of students from State comprehensives than those from independent schools achieve the highest classes of degree at Cambridge.

Still, this is just nitpicking, isn't it? Independent schools still predominate at the top of almost all school league tables. My question is, why? Let me say first that I cannot pretend to be an expert in independent schools. I attended one for two years as a child (a reasonably prestigious one, whose head went on to be head of Eton) and have dutifully watched the slew of documentaries about private education that have been gracing our TV screens recently, but that's about it. However what I can say is that I have found it very hard to identify anything that marks out the quality of education in independent schools as being in any way superior to that which I witnessed as a teacher, senior leader and Head in a variety of inner and outer London comprehensives.

Teaching has developed enormously in the State sector over recent decades and I can certainly remember no lesson from my own days in independent education that even approached the standard deemed acceptable in modern State schools. What I do remember is gowned masters handing out books, telling us boys to "work from page xx to page xx" and then settling down to a pile of marking, or perhaps the Times crossword.

That is not fair of course: That was then, and the past is a different country after all. Yet I have also never seen any evidence of good (let alone outstanding) teaching in contemporary independent schools. Of all the vast resource of excellent teaching materials on the internet I have never yet seen any that originated from an independent school. The various documentaries I have dipped into have shown next to nothing of the actual lessons in independent schools, but what there has been has not struck me as particularly inspiring or indeed challenging.

In a recent documentary about Radley school there was a snippet of a lesson with a form tutor who was also a maths teacher. He was presented as being maverick but both demanding and inspiring, so presumably this segment of a lesson was included as a demonstration of these qualities. In it the teacher barked out a series of random single-digit numbers and the boys (aged around 13, I would guess) had to add them, up. To be fair, this was probably not a lesson as such, but what we in the State sector would have called a "starter activity". Yet even so, it offered a level of challenge so low that, had I been observing the lesson, my hand would have been poised over the "inadequate" box on my lesson observation sheet. Adding of single-digit integers is a Primary level activity, and if this is how an inspiring and demanding teacher goes about his business at Radley then how the hell do so many of its students end up at Oxbridge?

Which is precisely the question.

There is of course that simple fact that independent schools are often better resourced. It is difficult and controversial to compare the cost of independent and State education, particularly since it is vastly more expensive to educate disadvantaged and troubled students with little or no parental support than the type of student who typically ends up in the independent sector. However in the end it doesn't matter hugely, because things like better facilities and even smaller class sizes are (at least once you exceed a floor figure of acceptable resourcing) rarely game-changers when it comes to rates of achievement. Indeed I remember seeing a LSC study on achievement at A level that showed that rates of achievement actually increased with class size, up to the mid-twenties: students in large classes did better on average than those in small classes. So nice as better facilities and smaller class sizes are for teachers they may not make as much difference as you might think to students.

The more swivel-eyed of Mr Gove's acolytes would have it that independent schools are inherently better because they are free from the dead hand of State control. Indeed Mr Gove himself managed to argue (in debate with Tristram Hunt) that in excluding unqualified teachers from Free schools Mr Hunt was trying to deny today's disadvantaged youth the privilege he gained from his own private education. This is mind-boggling stuff: how could one argue that unqualified, untrained teachers were likely to be better at teaching than trained and qualified ones? Who knows. The idea simply isn't worth wasting mental energy over. Personally though I shall be pressing for the freedom to appoint unqualified doctors to perform surgical procedures.

The other "dead hand" is around the National Curriculum. Having made the National Curriculum more prescriptive than it has ever been Mr Gove is arguing that high achievement can only come when schools are freed from its rigour. Honestly, you couldn't make it up.

Another, slightly less lunatic, argument is that independent schools do better than State schools because they recognise the true value of competitiveness, as opposed to the all-must-win-prizes attitude of State schools. Again, there is some superficial substance to this claim (though I have never witnessed anything close to the all-must-win-prizes parody in any State school I have actually worked at). Independent schools are pretty competitive places. Even I remember that, and the students interviewed in various documentaries seem acutely aware of it too.

However even this is not as stark a difference from the State sector as it first appears. The competitiveness within independent schools has a number of safety nets that render it in a sense less acute than its equivalent in the State sector. First, students appear constantly to be reminded that here they are already amongst the elite. This message comes to them loud and clear from their parents (who need to justify the large amounts of money they have shelled out), the schools (who need to ensure that said vast amounts of money continue to be shelled out) and wider society (which, as I have said, appears to have swallowed the notion quite unquestioningly). Therefore even the student who comes bottom of the class can console themselves with the (probably quite erroneous) idea that that still makes them better than all the State school oiks out there. Secondly, there are a large number of areas within which independent school students can compete successfully, so if they are rubbish at maths that is of little consequence if they are captain of the First Eleven.

Finally of course a little thought will make it apparent that it is manifestly not in an independent school's interest to have any student fail consistently in all available competitive areas, because if they did, then why would their parents continue to pay the fees? So if there is any sector where all must win prizes then logically it would be much more likely to be the independent sector.

Indeed, that I think points to the distinguishing feature of the independent sector, and the reason that its students generally achieve more highly than those from the State sector. One of the strongest impressions I have got from independent-school educated students is a powerful sense of high expectations combined with a perception of inalienable entitlement. You can hear it in the boys interviewed in the programmes about Harrow and Radley, I remember it from my own schoolmates (myself too probably, if the truth be told) and from independent-school educated people I have known since, and my daughter has seen it in college mates at Cambridge.

It's hardly surprising really. These are students who have either been born into privilege, with parents affluent enough and/or committed enough to ensuring their child's success to shell out large sums in school fees, or have won their golden ticket through a hugely competitive entrance exam. Once at school the message they receive from everywhere they look is about their membership of a much-vaunted elite. The message is in the architecture (often so reminiscent of seats of adult power like the Houses of Parliament); in the manicured lawns, boathouses and chapels; in the endless sequences of names carved into ancient oak panels; and in the heavy silver-plated trophies in the glass-covered cabinets. And if that were not enough the message comes through in any forum for discussion. Politicians say it, the papers say it, even TV documentaries now are in on the act.

So is it surprising that these students see themselves as future masters of the universe? Is it strange that they work harder, longer and with better focus than their peers in State schools, and in doing so more than compensate for any inadequacies in their teaching? Nothing succeeds like success, particularly in the teenage years, just as nothing leads to failure quite so surely as failure.

Of course there is a downside. An undiluted diet of this sort of sense of entitlement can lead to arrogance and a propensity to bully and condescend to those less fortunate (you need look no further than Number 10). Also, while a suppression of self-doubt can lead to early success it is not a recipe for true academic rigour. My daughter reports that independent-school educated students at Cambridge were often bamboozled and even affronted when their State educated peers produced more thoughtful, considered and essentially better work than them.

But in the main it does work. If you continue to tell someone that they are one of the chosen few, educated in a sector that is inherently superior to anything else, then they will in the end come to believe you, and they will succeed. Just as, if you continue to tell everyone else that they will never amount to anything because they were educated in a "bog-standard comprehensive" and "students from schools like these never make it to Oxbrdige" then all but the most brilliant, determined and committed will believe that too.

Which is the only reason I can find for students in the independent sector doing better than those from State schools.

So, to the second area for debate that I outlined at the start of this post: what can be taken from the independent sector to improve the State sector? Well, the answer I am afraid is absolutely nothing of any use whatever. Students at independent schools achieve highly because such schools are exclusive. And one thing you can say with some certainty about exclusiveness is that it cannot be inclusive. The only magic that students at independent schools have going for them (and it is a very powerful magic indeed) is that they are the elite.

And that is a message that, by definition, you cannot honestly give to everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment