Seldon on Private Schools

by Harry on January 15, 2008

The remarkable Anthony Seldon has an article in today’s Independent about the place of private schools in Britain’s education system. As Head of Wellington College and perhaps Britain’s most prominent private school headmaster, its no surprise to see him defending these bastions of privilege thus the following might surprise people who don’t know him:

the only vision the independent sector has today remains entrenched in the 20th century – dedicated to excellence and carrying on as we are in splendid isolation, detached from the mainstream national education system, thereby perpetuating the apartheid which has so dogged education and national life in Britain since the Second World War.

It is not right for any longer for our schools to cream off the best pupils, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best results and the best university places. If you throw in the 166 remaining grammar schools, which are predominantly middle class and private schools in all but name, the stranglehold is almost total.

Independent schools defend themselves by pointing to the numbers of bursaries they offer to those of lesser means, and many children from non-privileged backgrounds are indeed given a leg-up. But they also pluck children out of their social milieu as well as taking them away from their state schools, depriving those schools of their best academics, musicians, sportsmen and women and future stars.

Its my dad’s birthday today—Seldon’s present is better than mine. Read the whole thing.

Update: Report on the new Charity Commission guidelines here.

{ 55 comments }

1

leederick 01.15.08 at 10:34 pm

For me it is slightly undercut by the last line:

“Many independent schools operate with tight margins. A just and enduring vision of the sector for the 21st century must take full cognisance of this fact.”

Is this just an “oh fuck, we’re going to have to pay our taxes” moment? I have my doubts that a donation in kind is going to be more valuable than a donation in cash.

2

dave heasman 01.15.08 at 11:30 pm

“Is this just an “oh fuck, we’re going to have to pay our taxes” moment?”

Yes it is. But as with the Head Beak of Eton last spring, the Govt should seize the offer and make sure (which they haven’t done with Eton) that the deal gets so much publicity that the public schools can’t back out.

3

engels 01.15.08 at 11:52 pm

We must aspire to bring all schools up to the level of the independent sector

It’s terrible that we currently have a system in which a few people can jump the queue. But the solution is not to make sure everybody queues; it is to work towards a better world, a world in which everybody can jump the queue!

4

Bob B 01.16.08 at 1:13 am

A casual follower of this running issue in the news could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that – according to this source of official statistics – some 652 thousand pupils were attending “non-maintained” (official jargon for private, fee-paying) schools in the UK in 2004/5 out of a grand total of 9,963 thousand pupils at school – Table 3-3 (p.35):
http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_social/Social_Trends36/Social_Trends_36.pdf

In other words, pupils attending fee-paying schools represented only 6-5 per cent of all pupils at school in the UK. With that order of magnitiude, it stretches credulity a bit to claim that private, fee-paying schools inflict the scale of social damage they supposedly do.

The London Borough of Sutton, which almost perennially tops the standard league table of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in England, shows that the presence of a local cluster of outstanding maintained selective schools in an LEA can have the effect of raising the average attainment of candidates in the GCSE exams for 16 year-olds across the borough:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7180228.stm

On the inconvenient but perennial evidence from Sutton, it can hardly be argued that the presence of outstanding selective maintained schools has caused an erosion of educational attainment across the LEA. And some parents are actually pleased that the maintained (multi-ethnic) boys school down the road can achieve better results in the A-Level exams for 18 year-olds (and university entrance) than Eton. The bad news is that the Borough of Sutton is a relatively low spender on education by prevailing standards and that far from being relatively affluent, the distribution of income among residents in Sutton is close to the average for all London boroughs.

5

SG 01.16.08 at 2:02 am

I saw this chap on HardTalk with Stephen Sackur the other night, defending (amongst other things) his particular take on this “contemporary history” he studies. I wasn’t impressed, either by his attempt to defend himself against Sackur’s claim that “contemporary history” is just journalism with a fancy name, his defense against Ed Balls (who claims Seldon lied in his history of Blair) or by his rather weak defence against Sackur’s point that an elite private school doesn’t necessarily have much of use to tell ordinary schools about how they should teach.

I wonder if his claim that private schools work on tight margins is part of some kind of jockeying for government funds? Are private school students in England funded by the government, as they are in Australia? In Australia the elite private schools maintain a funny pattern of talking about their elite nature to one audience (wealthy prats), and crying poor to another audience (government prats). Do English private schools do the same?

6

engels 01.16.08 at 6:56 am

The stuff about how Seldon & Co. cream off “cream off the best pupils, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best results and the best university places” is flagrant self-promotion of course but it’s Seldon’s whingeing at the end of the piece that strikes me as especially nauseating. If he thinks he operates with tight margins, he should see how comprehensive schools get by.

If Seldon really wants to make a difference to social justice in this country he can send his pupils home, close up shop and start looking for an honest job. I’m not going to hold my breath.

I wonder if his claim that private schools work on tight margins is part of some kind of jockeying for government funds?

Yep: private schools in the UK are currently classed as charities–an absurd misclassification, since far from being of public benefit they bring a net disutility to society as a whole, by perpetuating the class divisions which poison British life–which enables them to worm their way out of paying £100 million a year in taxes. Seldon’s griping relates to recent talk of the possibility of these Ra Ra Rupert handouts being rescinded, but with the reactionary time servers posing as a Labour government we have currently running our country it’s unlikely to be seriously contemplated.

7

SG 01.16.08 at 7:44 am

Engels, it’s funny you suggest Seldon get a real job. That’s exactly the suggestion Sackur made, and Seldon revealed he has tried several times and no state school will have him. Can’t imagine why.

Thanks for the info about private school funding, too.

8

Tracy W 01.16.08 at 9:34 am

depriving those schools of their best academics, musicians, sportsmen and women and future stars.

Well, if UK state schools are anything like most NZ state schools, when it comes to academics the state schools generally don’t want their best academics, so I personally have no problem with private schools “depriving” them.

Bitter, me? Never!

Indeed, I believe every single independent school should either be founding an academy or taking part in a trust or federation. To fail to do so is to deprive pupils, teachers and schools at large of opportunities for giving and sharing.

Only if there is some evidence that independent schools can do anything useful with an academy or a trust or federation.

Students from deprived areas are not pawns to be given to and shared with independently of their own needs.

The evidence from Project Followthrough in the US is that educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a wide range of mental abilities is a whole different problem from educating bright children from culturally-similar backgrounds. It requires much better teaching to reach the latter group. And the US evidence from NCLB is indicating that the schools in rich areas do about as badly with their low-income students as the schools in low-income areas.

On the anecdotal level, one of my mum’s friends was sending her daughter to the local state primary school, which was not in a good area. The school called her one day and said “your daughter has a reading problem”. She went “aaarrgghhh”, pulled her daughter out of the school and sent her to a private school. Two years later the school called and said “your daughter has a reading problem”.

9

dsquared 01.16.08 at 10:30 am

Many independent schools operate with tight margins

if Westminster School isn’t teaching the kids that you pay taxes on profits, then some of the parents ought to be complaining.

10

chris armstrong 01.16.08 at 10:32 am

Seldon was also interviewed by Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 yesterday. Unfortunately he exasperated Vine by refusing to be critical of private schools on air, apart from suggesting that they should do SLIGHTLY more to cooperate with state schools (including being more serious about setting up academies, etc). But this could only be an inter-rim measure, he argued – in the long run, all schools should become independent, and hence the issue becomes a non-issue. So although the criticisms you cite, Harry, have certainly grabbed the headlines, the detail of his criticism didn’t seem partiularly wounding at all.

11

Tom T. 01.16.08 at 12:56 pm

Is he an ancestor of Hari Seldon? Perhaps he can predict how his kids will turn out.

12

chris armstrong 01.16.08 at 1:24 pm

Boom boom.

13

harry b 01.16.08 at 2:36 pm

I haven’t read Seldon’s books, not being verybinterested in the subjects, but I am sympathetic that not much written about politics before the 30 year rule is up can count as history.

So, I’m guessing people don’t know Seldon or what he’s been doing — for the past decade or so he has been pressing very hard within the private sector for more openness to and cooperation with the maintained sector, and the views he expresses here will not have come as a surprise to his colleagues. Saying these things in public is a big step, even if only in writing (I missed the Jeremy Vine, but the trail for the show was how I heard about the piece). He runs an annual conference for ‘independent’ schools teachers/heads etc, which is very high-profile, and consistently ensures that left wing critics of private schools are present and get big audiences. I really thought I was being set up the year I went, but I wasn’t, and discovered at the event that he had selected for headline the one New Labouor person who is genuinely and unembarrasedly hostile to the sector (Matthew Taylor). So, I think this is all in good faith.

I’m perplexed by the comment about tight margins. It is clearly true for most schools. But it also seems to me that demand is not very elastic, so there is room to raise fees. Loss of charitable status would not be relevant to paying taxes on profits, Daniel, but paying VAT. About 8 years ago I did a pretty careful calculation, which I have lost and am not going to repeat, but at that time I worked out (and checked this with a knowledgable accountant and also with a bursar of a tight margin private school) that loss of charitable status would force schools to raise fees by an average of 5%, which is hardly calamitous. I think the loss of charitable status is much more about the effects of self-image.

Do privates have the relevant knowledge and skills to help out with state schools? Well, some do and some don’t. Tracy w’s comment that “the US evidence from NCLB is indicating that the schools in rich areas do about as badly with their low-income students as the schools in low-income areas” is spot on, and now that we have some data the same is true in the UK — in fact one rule of thumb is that if you are poor, it is better to go to a school with a substantial proportion of other poor kids, than one with less than 15%.

A few of the top privates probably should involve themselves in running academies, but participating in trusts and federations makes more sense for most.

If it were on the agenda, I’d favour prohibiting them. But in the absence of that, the one private school Head I would not want to see resigning and getting another job is Seldon.

14

John M 01.16.08 at 2:40 pm

Whatever the merits of the rest of the piece it makes no sense to claim that private schools ‘cream off the best pupils’ since they can only select from those of the richest pupils whose parents prefer they should be privately educated.

15

harry b 01.16.08 at 2:43 pm

johm m — not true — many do offer scholarships, usually for high achieving non-rich kids. And, although it is true that background wealth is not a perfect proxy for quality, having about half of the 10% wealthiest parents completely uninterested in the quality of state schools, and resistant to paying more taxes to ensure their quality, is, contra bob b above, a pretty serious problem.

16

Alison P 01.16.08 at 2:54 pm

Fee-paying schools may offer a few token places to able kids, but there’s no way that private education embraces a significant proportion of the most able young people within our society. Similarly, I doubt that they offer, in general, a superior education, in terms of fitness for adult jobs (though clearly better in respect of cramming for the pre-degree type of exam).

The result is that senior positions, for example in the British Civil Service, are staffed by mediocre people who have received a mediocre education – not good for this country.

17

John M 01.16.08 at 3:35 pm

“And, although it is true that background wealth is not a perfect proxy for quality, having about half of the 10% wealthiest parents completely uninterested in the quality of state schools, and resistant to paying more taxes to ensure their quality, is, contra bob b above, a pretty serious problem.”

Harry, is there any evidence that the 10% of wealthiest parents are completely uninterested in the quality of state schools, regardless of where they send their young? I would very much like to send my eldest to a local fee-paying school (and may yet) but I am extremely concerned nonetheless with the state of the maintained sector. Likewise, although I think it likely that the wealthiest people (like many others) are resistant to paying more taxes in general, I doubt that this is related to how they educate their children. In fact, I suspect that if the government really could convince people that extra taxes led directly to better schooling there would be much less resistance to them. But the suspicion is that it is frittered away on ‘initiatives’. So I don’t see the problem.

And even with scholarships (do we know how many there are?) it remains true that private schools draw the large majority of their pupils from the richest families (or what would be the objection?) which means they have access only to a very small percntage of the available brightest pupils (assuming an even distribution of intelligence across income levels).

I greatly enjoyed your book ‘On Education’ by the way.

18

dsquared 01.16.08 at 3:37 pm

Harry – can that be right? I’m not an expert on this but I would have thought that charitable status is VAT-negative for private schools, as it would mean that they can’t claim back the VAT they pay on services and such.

19

John M 01.16.08 at 3:46 pm

“Similarly, I doubt that they offer, in general, a superior education, in terms of fitness for adult jobs”

Well, education should not be judged primarily in terms of fitting young peple for dult jobs. But leaving that aside, I would say, talking as a parent trying to find a school, that your comment about quality of education misses the point. What the private sector can offer is greater diversity, depth and richness of education, with ‘quality’ in terms of exam-passing simply taken as granted as the bstating level. This is what makes them attractive to parents such as me.

I am sure my daughter would succeed in one of our local state schools and would achieve good A level passes (you will not be surprised to hear that I take her intelligence for granted) but that is the most that they offer. They reprsent that as success in itself when talking to parents. The fee paying school I am looking at gets excellent exam results, of course, but in a far wider range of subjects and with much more time dedicated to non-exam related or curricular activity. That is the attraction. Exam success is their starting assumption not their ultimate destination (although it is, of coutrse, still an essential consideration). It is to do with flourishing and happiness as well as exam success. The image of the private sector as a sort of super-crammer for snobs is a false one (in many or most cases) and unless you recognise that you won’t understand the motivations of the parents who send their children to them. In my case (and I am sure I am not untypical) it will be a huge sacrifice to do it.

20

seth edenbaum 01.16.08 at 3:50 pm

I’m the product of a very expensive and academically at least a very good private secondary school, founded and run by a Quaker Meeting. I’d never send my kids to private school, or even to a private university. I also wouldn’t teach at one. They’re not concerned with teaching, or their students but with prestige. But of course the teachers and students are as well. The new model of the University is the technical college and the sports franchise, fueled by brand snobbery.

21

Tracy W 01.16.08 at 3:55 pm

I’m perplexed by the comment about tight margins. It is clearly true for most schools. But it also seems to me that demand is not very elastic, so there is room to raise fees.

Excluding tight operating-margins caused by feather-bedding or fraud (and no principal, public or private, is going to say “it only costs $5,000 to educate a kid, but we’ve discovered we can extract $8,000 from you and spend it on really good biscuits in the staffroom”), what happens with schools is that there is no limit to the amount of money that can be spent on education. If a school gets more money, it can spend it on buying new textbooks more frequently, or more books for the library, or buying new science equipment, or installing a darkroom and starting a photography course, or replacing blackboards by whiteboards, or replacing whiteboards by smartboards, or by paying for the travelling expenses of famous scientists/ authors/ artists to come talk to students, or installing a swimming pool on the school grounds to improve water skills, or hiring more language teachers and thus being able to offer more foreign languages, or sending the students on more field trips, or upgrading the computers, etc, etc. All of which have some plausible link to the goal of giving students a better education.

I noticed this with my (state) high school, who significantly expanded their operations while I was there (eg they installed a new language lab and a new administration building, and brought new science equipment, albeit because our physics teacher had refused to accept the job unless they did), but still complained each year about how tight the money was.

A school run strictly for profit, or by someone who has a pathological desire to avoid any risk of being in deficit may have loose operating margins. But otherwise it doesn’t surprise me that a school would have tight ones. If they had spare money, they’d spend it.

So, if independent schools lost money per student, they’d cut back on their educational spending somewhat. So the students would have a slightly worse education. I suspect the difference would not be measurable in exam results.

22

harry b 01.16.08 at 3:59 pm

Daniel — it could be wrong — but when I worked out whatever I worked out both my accountant friend and bursar friend thought I was right. I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the details, but it was immediately after I moved to the UK and my life was unusually chaotic. Am I right that charitable status gives them a break on the rates or community charge or whatever it is? Anyway, that’s what I worked out, and I was surprised that, all things considered, there was so little at stake on both sides.

john m — thanks for liking the book! I think there is a problem, but, sure, Seldon and perhaps I might exaggerate it. If you understand “best” not in terms of IQ, but in terms of the cost of educating them reasonably well, most of the 6% come from educated families, have already learned to read when they come to school, have more or less supportive backgrounds, etc. Of course, some are kids you wouldn’t want to touch with a bargepole. And although the number of scholarship kids must be so small as not to have a coutnry-wdie impact, it probably does have an impact in some locales with particularly successful scholarship schools, like MGS, which also, not coincidentally, probably cream off small but significant numbers of good teachers from the state sector.

(Competely OT, but related to the above comment, why don’t more people with PhDs aim to teach in good private schools rather than in not so good universities?)

Parents who send their kids private are a mixed bucnh. Many use both state and private, at different stages or for different kids and needs. But parents whose kids are in state schools are more invested in the system. If your kids go private, will you put as much energy into making sure things go well in the state schools as if your kids attend the state schools? The tendecny is to focus on where your kids are, simply because you have limited time and energy, whatever your more abstract interests.

I agree that some of the resistence to tax-paying comes as a general matter, and some more comes from worries about leaky buckets (wasted effort on initiatives, etc). In fact a lot of the extra spending, even when highlighted as being part of an “intiative” goes to ordinary boring things (think about performance-related pay, which was really just a tarted up salary increase). And many initiatives are highlighted numerous times, giving the impression there are more than there really are. Your comment makes me wonder if the government would do better by publicisng what it does less!

23

chris armstrong 01.16.08 at 4:45 pm

Why don’t more people with PhDs aim to teach in good private schools rather than not so good universities? There are several reasons why someone wouldn’t. For some it might be that they have an ethical objection to private education, or to put it another way, an ethical commitment to public service that gets enacted in one job but not the other. For some the explanation might be that you’ve done your PhD so you can be a scholar, write books, engage with fellow scholars – and surely if you want to do this you’d be better off at a university, barring marginal cases? Assuming as you do in your question that university posts are available, why eat chalk if you trained to eat cheese?

There might be other reasons too, but, in short, I’m not as surprised as you are. Maybe if the choice post-PhD is between teaching at a private school and leaving education entirely the choice would be taken more often. Anecdotally, I can think of just one contemporary who expressed an interest, post-PhD, in working in a private school, but he was politically conservative, didn’t think he had much of a future in academia, and has since left education altogether (nice guy, by the way – I’m not criticising him here).

24

Richard J 01.16.08 at 4:51 pm

I can’t quite see how the charitable tax breaks are much benefit. The supply of education is exempt for VAT, and so input VAT would not be recoverable in any case[1]. However, that’s pretty much the same position charities are in anyway on their charitable activities…

And I can come up with a reasonable argument that any net income the school may make would be non-taxable – if you can sail a course between the Scylla and Charybidis of Schedules D I and VI, there’s certainly enough to keep a phalanx of tax lawyers happy for years.

[1] As opposed to zero-rated supplies, where input VAT is, of course, recoverable. There’s a reason why I always pass VAT questions on to someone else straightaway in my professional life.

25

Alison P 01.16.08 at 4:56 pm

Well, education should not be judged primarily in terms of fitting young peple for dult jobs.

Perhaps not, but if the private education system systematically funnels people who are not adequately prepared into crucial jobs, this has a serious knock-on effect for this country. Which is what I believe.

What the private sector can offer is greater diversity, depth and richness of education

One way to check whether this is so, is to compare the privately educated people one mixes with at work or at University with the state school pupils. I think that comparison speaks for itself.

26

Tracy W 01.16.08 at 5:01 pm

If your kids go private, will you put as much energy into making sure things go well in the state schools as if your kids attend the state schools?

Parents, in my experience, don’t focus their attention on state schools in general. Instead they focus their attention on their own kids’ state schools. So for example, my mother was elected to the board of our local primary school, and focused her efforts on improving that school.

Since state schools tend to draw on their local geographic area, and areas tend to be sorted by income, the quality of parent involvement in state schools tends to vary by income levels as well. Parents who are successful in monetary terms tend to have a lot of financial skills or are good at getting people to do what they want. On the flipside, poor areas have a lot more parents who lack those skills.

At a national level, in my experience education policy is dominated by:

– teachers

– universities/polytechs, who want well-prepared students and exam results that allow them to pick off the smartest kids

– education professionals (who may be university academics as well, but are driven much more by various educational theories)

– employers wanting skilled labour

– those individual politicians who went into politics because of some dream about the wonders of education.

27

engels 01.16.08 at 5:14 pm

Seldon is correct to note that institutions like his are responsible for causing grave social ills. But he exaggerates the superiority of private schools on the objective factors he lists (there are sound ethical and prudential reasons for a lot of the best pupils and teachers in state education not wanting to touch the Hooray Henry sector with a barge pole) and this is, as I said, self-serving, another advertisement for the phony ‘benefits’ of the Ra Ra Rupert enculturation programme. As is John M’s blathering about ‘depth and richness’… Exaggerating the desperate plight of anyone who puts the milk in first is the time-worn prerogative of the snob.

28

dsquared 01.16.08 at 5:21 pm

ah yeah, the business rate would make quite a difference.

29

lemuel pitkin 01.16.08 at 5:28 pm

if Westminster School isn’t teaching the kids that you pay taxes on profits, then some of the parents ought to be complaining.

I don’t know how things work in the UK. But in the US, private schools are typically exempt from property tax, which is quite a big subsidy that is unaffected by profitability.

Are property taxes not important in the UK, or do private schools already pay them?

30

lolwut 01.16.08 at 6:10 pm

Perhaps not, but if the private education system systematically funnels people who are not adequately prepared into crucial jobs, this has a serious knock-on effect for this country. Which is what I believe.

Do you have any evidence to support this? The privately educated have to go to the same universities as everyone else, so it’s not like there’s some direct route to the civil service or whatever after a pupil finishes their secondary education.

31

Alison P 01.16.08 at 6:52 pm

The privately educated have to go to the same universities as everyone else

I didn’t think there was a debate about whether people leaving public school proportionately go to the same universities as people from other schools. Anyway here’s a brief overview of some of the statistics, and it’s got some follow-up stuff, but there’s a huge amount of data.

And here’s something on Civil Service admission (policy level).

Sorry I’ve only taken a few seconds on this, could probably find more. Hope the HTML works on crooked timber, I’ve never tried it before.

32

leederick 01.16.08 at 7:42 pm

I think they’re most worried about their endowments, rather than their profits. They’re not businesses and don’t have ‘profits’ as such. If Seldon’s right, and they do run on a tight margin, then the model at a place like Wellington is more-or-less that you pay your fees in return for that amount spent on your kids education and access to the school’s pool of capital. You literally pay an entrance fee for access to inherited privilege. That’s probably what they’re being so protective over. Capital Gains Tax and various schemes to do with investments and gifting could – over the long term – seriously erode one of their main advantages.

33

nick s 01.16.08 at 10:31 pm

With that order of magnitiude, it stretches credulity a bit to claim that private, fee-paying schools inflict the scale of social damage they supposedly do.

Oxford is still 54-46 state/independent for its undergraduate intake. That’s an improvement from 50-50 fifteen years ago.

George Walden made the case a long time ago that the independent sector screws up education reform in the UK because a large proportion of those making the laws and influencing the policy simply opt out of the state system.

(No surprise that many Tories hate him for it.)

In the case of NewLabour, it might have been by careful choice of where to live or shipping the kids across to the grant-maintained faith school, but that combines with those who place the little buggers on the Eton list as zygotes.

34

SG 01.17.08 at 2:00 am

john m, your comments about private schools being focussed on more than exams were raised by Seldon in his interview on HardTalk. Sackur pointed out to him that the kind of “enriching” atmosphere you describe only works for rich kids from a restricted background which values education. It is irrelevant when transferred to a system where very diverse backgrounds have to be considered, and a very diverse range of outcomes prepared for. Especially when state schools don’t, as leederick has observed, grant you admission to a club which confers non-education-related benefits. Seldon had no response to this – the image of trying to teach his way to a bunch of working-class boys in a depressed inner-city area was too powerful for his bleating to cut through.

He tried to defend it, of course, by observing that his school gets excellent (and improving) exam results, too, but the social milieu of his 5 percenters is so clearly different to that of the hoi polloi that the argument just doesn’t wash. State schools have to work with a lower common denominator of teaching outcomes, because they have a broader range of students.

35

Bob B 01.17.08 at 5:53 am

Readers may find it enlightening to read the views of Diane Abbott MP on private schools:

“Labour MP Diane Abbott has said sending her son to a £10,000-a-year private school instead of a comprehensive is ‘indefensible’.

“In her first detailed comments on the controversy, she told BBC One’s This Week programme: ‘Private schools prop up the class system in society. It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school.’

“But, she added: ‘I had to choose between my reputation as a politician and my son.’ . . “
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3229453.stm

36

John M 01.17.08 at 9:50 am

“Sackur pointed out to him that the kind of “enriching” atmosphere you describe only works for rich kids from a restricted background which values education. It is irrelevant when transferred to a system where very diverse backgrounds have to be considered, and a very diverse range of outcomes prepared for. “

This is ludicrous and a position that could only be held by someone with no experience of working class people. It will shock and surprise Sackur that working class people value education and culture just like middle class people and know how to benefit from it. My grandfather read Dante when he wasn’t driving the van and my Uncle John gets much more heated about Maria Callas than about any printing job I’ve heard him discuss. I recommend to your attention the ‘Intellectual Life of the British Working Class’ by Jonathan Roase to your attention to cure you of any of these prejudices. I managed to read it despite coming from the low-browed, horny-handed, mouth-breathing working stock that Sackur apparantly thinks incapable of culture.

37

chris armstrong 01.17.08 at 11:06 am

Seldon suggested on the Radio 2 interview that private schools are in some way doing a public service by teaching many students with, shall we say, lower educational abilities. These students would otherwise be taught within the state sector, perhaps expensively. This is perhaps true. But another way of putting it would be to say that a primary role of private schools is to all but guarantee a university education, and a professional job, to individuals who are clearly less qualified than many of their less advantaged co-citizens. In that sense they work as an expensive safety-net, which catches middle class children who would otherwise migrate to working-class jobs. It’s understandable that parents would want to spend lots of money avoiding this for their children. But from an egalitarian point of view, a public service it ain’t.

38

Tracy W 01.17.08 at 12:04 pm

George Walden made the case a long time ago that the independent sector screws up education reform in the UK because a large proportion of those making the laws and influencing the policy simply opt out of the state system.

On the other hand, an independent sector allows parents an escape from the state system, thus reducing the state’s ability to go down lunatic tracks.

It strikes me that exam policy in NZ is affected by the ability of private schools to opt for non-state-sponsored exams such as the IB or the Cambridge Exams.

There is a case for politicians being obliged to put their children in state schools. But that hardly requires ending the private school system.

39

Alex 01.17.08 at 1:26 pm

On the other hand, an independent sector allows parents an escape from the state system, thus reducing the state’s ability to go down lunatic tracks.

Nonsense; it means that the parents best placed to restrain the state from going down lunatic tracks don’t, and instead opt out, with the result that the lunatic education minister has to loonycate fewer kids, which is easier and cheaper.

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Bob B 01.17.08 at 1:31 pm

Readers may like to reflect on the timing of this renewed bout of political concern about the 6-5 percent of school pupils attending private, fee-paying schools and the continuing existence of 166 (or so) maintained, selective grammar schools in Britain.

There is a reason, believe me. Consider this recent news report concerning the schools league table based on the results of the GCSE exams for 16 year-olds last summer:

“More than half a million children are being taught in failing secondary schools that risk closure by the Government.

“New GCSE league tables published today indicate that 639 of Britain’s 3,000 state secondaries have failed to meet the Government’s minimum target for 30 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. Last year, the Prime Minister vowed to shut down or take over schools that did not reach that level within five years.

“Overall, the tables show that the rate of progress in improving GCSE results has almost ground to a halt.”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/school_league_tables/article3162676.ece

That came a few weeks after this news:

“British teenagers have plummeted down an international education league table, sparking fresh fears that schoolchildren are failing to master the basics.

“They fell in a set of new rankings comparing reading, mathematics and science standards in 57 nations – accounting for 90 per cent of the world’s economy.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/12/04/nedu404.xml

With our prevailing blame culture, all this must be someone’s fault and it can’t be the government’s. The answer to education inequalities is quite straight forward. Close all the good schools.

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GreatZamfir 01.17.08 at 1:32 pm

On the other hand, an independent sector allows parents an escape from the state system, thus reducing the state’s ability to go down lunatic tracks.

I think there is a lot to say for a system where private schools can choose to get financed by the government at the same rate as state schools, but only if they take no other funding.

This way all people, not just the rich, get the option to choose the type of school they want, but at the same time it guarantees that most people with children in private schools still support adequate funding for state schools.

This way you separate two streams of people who want private (or for example religious) education, namely people who object to aspects of the state schooling system and people who want to spend more money on their child’s education than provided by the government.

The first group can go to privately-run but government-funded schools, the second group can still go private, but then their children receive no governemnt subsidy.

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Tracy W 01.17.08 at 2:25 pm

Nonsense; it means that the parents best placed to restrain the state from going down lunatic tracks don’t, and instead opt out, with the result that the lunatic education minister has to loonycate fewer kids, which is easier and cheaper.

Because of course education ministers are completely unaffected by comparisons between what state schools and private schools are doing.

A rule requiring elected politicians to place their children in state schools strikes me as placing ample incentives on the education minister to do things his/her colleagues care for. MPs are extremely good at lobbying in their own interests.

This way all people, not just the rich, get the option to choose the type of school they want, but at the same time it guarantees that most people with children in private schools still support adequate funding for state schools.

Public school teachers and other education staff are an ample lobby for more government spending on education.

What is far more important than spending on schools is the quality of educational outcomes.
There is a *lot* of evidence that there is no automatic relationship between spending money and good educational outcomes. What matters is the details. Is the curriculum well-structured so that a new skill is only taught once students have mastered all the necessary pre-requisites for learning the new skill? Does the curriculum include practice of already-learnt skills, or does it teach something then ignore it for 3 months, by which time most kids have forgotten about it? Are teachers trained to present new information in a way that is unambiguous for all the children in their class, regardless of cultural background? Are teachers trained to continually seek feedback on mastery and to adjust the lesson in response to that feedback? Do the national standards call for too many things to be taught per year? Are there national standards at all? Does the school administration support teachers in maintaining discipline? Does the school administration support teachers in running the classroom or do they interrupt classes all the time?

All these things are relatively independent of the level of spending. And we don’t seem to have a decent lobby group for them. The well-educated and/or wealthy either can teach their kids themselves or hire tutors if their kids have problems – I know as I’ve been hired often enough as a tutor.

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GreatZamfir 01.17.08 at 2:54 pm

tracy w, I completely agree that funding is not the major issue. That’s why I believe that having different schooling systems instead of just a single state system is good. It offers a retreat when state schooling becomes too bad, and it can offer example to learn from for other.

But if these other options are not funded by the government, they will never be open to all students. The system I have my doubts about is ‘voucher system’ some people seem to be promoting in the US, where the government subsidies part of the cost of private education, and leaves the private schools free to ask more on top of that amount.

I can too easily see this evolve in a system where private schools become just as unreachable for poor people, but now with extra subsidy.

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Bob B 01.17.08 at 5:05 pm

“That’s why I believe that having different schooling systems instead of just a single state system is good.”

The Wikipedia entry for Gymnasium schools in Germany and the Netherlands compares them with the (? 166) grammar schools in England:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gymnasium_(school)

Why it is wrong for England to have more schools of the kind that are regarded as mainstream in Germany and the Netherlands. Among the City Academies famously promoted by the Blair government, some are specialising in modern languages, others in media studies or science and technology and so on. There appears to be no objections to some academies specialising in sports studies:

“There are currently 345 Sports Colleges in England operating as part of the Specialist Schools Programme. In addition, a further 12 schools have been designated in combined specialisms which include sport and 14 schools have Sport as a second specialism.”
http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/specialistschools/what_are/sports/

What then is wrong about some academies specialising in academic subjects with a general expectation that their pupils will mostly be going on to universities after leaving at 18 and selecting their intake according to aptitude?

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Tracy W 01.17.08 at 6:02 pm

Greatzamfir – thanks for explaining. I understand your point better now.

An advantage of a voucher system is that it makes it easier to set up schools appealing to poorer people. I know there is a long internal debate amongst proponents of vouchers as to whether schools should be able to charge “top-up” fees. According to The Economist, top-up fees are forbidden in Sweden and most American systems but not in Chile, but I have not checked the figures myself. According to Caroline Hoxby, charter schools in the US are banned from charging a top-up fee on top of what they receive from the government (which I suppose makes them state, or to use non-British terminology public, schools by definition). http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?story_id=9119786&fsrc=RSS

http://www.ekonomiskaradet.se/Panda_ekonomiska/Data/Documents/sepr2003/Hoxsby.pdf

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PJ 01.17.08 at 9:39 pm

“That came a few weeks after this news:

“British teenagers have plummeted down an international education league table, sparking fresh fears that schoolchildren are failing to master the basics.

“They fell in a set of new rankings comparing reading, mathematics and science standards in 57 nations – accounting for 90 per cent of the world’s economy.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/12/04/nedu404.xml

This particular little misleading piece of league table nonsense was nicely skewered by the BBC’s More or Less:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/more_or_less/7136351.stm

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SG 01.18.08 at 6:27 am

john m, having grown up in working class england I am well aware of its “intellectual life”, and probably don’t need to read books about it. Sackur’s point is a strong one, that what works in the rarefied culture of an upper class that values education doesn’t work when dealing with a broad range of kids from an essentially anti-intellectual culture. I thought there was even quite a body of literature on the role of working class “culture” in hampering educational outcomes for its own children. That was certainly my experience, and hardly unusual when I compare it to that of my peers. It’s no coincidence, for example, that my father was forced to leave school at 15 to take up a trade, and when I turned 16 I still didn’t know what a University was, or that I could go. I think it’s silly to ignore these realities and pretend that everyone in England is entering school with the same cultural baggage.

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GreatZamfir 01.18.08 at 10:31 am

@ bob b. i am not entirely sure what you mean with your reference to gymnasia. I actually attended one in the Netherlands. Perhaps it is useful to describe some features of the Dutch system, just as comparison.

Everyone in the country attends ‘basisschool’, primary education until 12. At the end of this everyone makes a standardized test, and its result plus your teacher’s advice determines what level of ‘middelbare school’, secondary education, you go to.

Middelbare school has roughly three levels. VWO is ‘preparation for scientific education’, it takes 6 years and prepares for university. This is similar to the German Gymnasium, in the Netherlands gymnasium means VWO with Greek and Latin.
HAVO takes 5 years and prepares for HBO, ‘higher vocational traning’, perhaps comparable with the former polytechnics etc. in the UK.
The majority of secondary school students go to VMBO for 4 years, which has its own sublevels, preparing either for work after it, or for MBO, ‘middle vocational training.
At the end of secondary school everyone does a standardized test again, and passing it automatically qualifies you for the fitting tertiary eductation.

So in principle you are put on a single track at age 12, which is quite young I think. There are however a nuber of ways to change track on the road, usually at the expense of redoing some years if you move to a higher level.

I think roughly half of the schools are state schools, the rest are mainly religious schools funded at exactly the same terms as state schools. (This is a leftover from the strong religious sepration in the country until recently). At primary school level there are also ‘alternative’ schools, with special educational philosophies, but at the secondary level the government prescribed curriculum is too strict to leave much of a difference between the schools. Truly private schools that charge their own fees are extremly rare, and aimed at rich people whose children are failing in the normal system, so attending them is not good for your CV.

Personally, I would like to keep the funding system that treats state and non-state the same, but with a prescribed curriculum that is a lot smaller, leaving schools with more freedom to do differentiate.

The separate track system in secondary school is quite different from England, isn’t it? From an egalitarian point of view, it has good and bad points. If someone scores well on the 12-year old tests, they are automatically put on track to tertiary education no matter their social bakground. On the other hand, people with higher education themselves tend to push their children to higher levels, and the system tends to exaggerate this effect.

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Bob B 01.18.08 at 12:24 pm

GreatZamfir – Thanks for those insights into the structure of schooling in the Netherlands.

Perhaps I should have made it clearer that the outstanding selective schools in the London borough where I live – including the two boys schools within a mile of where I sit now and which achieve better results than Eton in the A-Level exams (and university entrance) for 18 year-olds – are all state funded or “maintained” schools, in the jargon. There are no fees.

Of course, that fact is hugely embarrassing, not only for those pressing for an end to all academic selection by schools but also for those who pay c. £10,000 a year or more for their siblings to attend one of the outstanding, non-maintained schools. And we might note that there are many non-maintained schools which are not “outstanding” compared with, say, Eton.

Besides, we also have this hugely embarrassing research from Warwick University a few years back:

“The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates’ results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/2552523.stm

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GreatZamfir 01.18.08 at 12:59 pm

Bob b, as i understand, you are not in favor of expensive private schooling, but fear that a sentiment against these schools will also affect your local, good school because it too has an ‘elite’ feeling?

As I understand it, this school is not government-run, but is government funded, and ‘selective’ means it reserves the right to reject certain children, based on school performance?

If that’s the case I have to stress that Dutch schools have very strict rules on who they can reject. In particular, if your test scores give you VWO advise, a VWO school is not allowed to reject you. Religious schools are allowed to reject people on religious grounds, but only within strict rules. In practice this is rare.

Also, most secondary schools are ‘scholengemeenschappen’, ‘school communities’, meaning they combine all three tracks in one organization, and often in one building. This makes it easier for children to switch track, and it also diminishes the ‘elite’ aspect that the higher forms of education might have otherwise have.

The gymnasia you mentioned are a bit of a peculiarity, since they only offer VWO education and are indeed a bit elitist and also a bit ‘white’, meaning they have little immigrant children. However, they do not offer appreciably better education than the VWO sections of school communities, except for a self-selection effect because children who doubt they can finish VWO will prefer scholengemeenschappen, where they can switch to HAVO if necessary.

I have understood that in Britain you cannot send your children to schools outside your own district, or at least my colleagues there used to worry about this a lot. Is this also true for secondary schools? If so, I imagine the ‘elitist’ feeling of good schools in highly-educated neighbourhoods is much stronger than here in Holland.

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lemuel pitkin 01.18.08 at 4:06 pm

a primary role of private schools is to all but guarantee a university education, and a professional job, to individuals who are clearly less qualified than many of their less advantaged co-citizens. In that sense they work as an expensive safety-net, which catches middle class children who would otherwise migrate to working-class jobs. It’s understandable that parents would want to spend lots of money avoiding this for their children. But from an egalitarian point of view, a public service it ain’t.

As a summary of the issues at stake here, this would be hard to improve on.

To the extent that there is a genuine benefit from private schools, it can and should be realized as greatzamfir says: private schools funded by the state at the same per-pupil rate as public schools, with no additional payments by parents. That achieves the ostensible goals of competition with the public sector, choice for parents and greater range of experimentation without the class sorting that is obviously the main function of private schools today.

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Bob B 01.18.08 at 9:52 pm

Re: “your local, good school because it too has an ‘elite’ feeling?”

The outstanding, selective maintained schools in Sutton are funded by the local council – which, like all councils, receives a block grant from central government to cover c. 80 per cent of council spending – but the schools are “independent” in the sense that they have their own boards of governors and, subject to law, are otherwise free of detailed control by the local council.

The pupils of the schools are hardly elitist to outward appearances – boys from the one down the road, which my son attended a good few years ago, regularly travel on the same buses as I do when I go shopping for groceries and look broadly representative of the united nations.

I’m none too sure that the academic excellence of the schools is widely recognised by residents across the borough – the percentage of graduates (and others with level 4 qualifications) among borough residents is below the average for London although the local press usually carries a perennial news item reporting that Sutton was top again, or nearly so, in the league table of local education authorities for England.

Entry to the schools is by entrance exam – it happens that my son didn’t know that he was going to sit the exam until he was a couple of hundred metres from the school he was accepted for and he was appropriately unphased at the prospect. It also happens that my GP (NHS doctor) attended the same school before going on to university to read medicine but I doubt many of his patients know that. More recently, the school has opened its sixth form to girls from neighbouring schools who, presumably, can’t access the subjects that interest them at their own schools. However, the borough does have an outstanding, selective girls school – admittedly a longish bus ride away from where I sit – which achieves better results than Eton and there are several other girls schools which don’t do quite as well.

Parents who wish their siblings to be considered for admission, apply for them to sit the relevant entrance exams, otherwise they apply for them to go to one of the local comprehensive schools for which there are no entrance exams. The choice is theirs.

The evidence from the borough’s experience is that the presence of these outstanding schools in the borough helps to raise and not diminish average education standards across the borough. As a faithful adherent of evidence-based policy, I am therefore unable to support Mr Seldon’s clarion call to abolish the maintained grammar schools. A cluster of them has served this borough well and there is virtually no detectable local groundswell of opposition to them.

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engels 01.18.08 at 10:42 pm

Umm, what “evidence” do you claim to have that the existence of selective schools in a given area raises the average level of attainment? (Not that maximising “average education standards” ought to be the goal of policy anyway…)

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Bob B 01.18.08 at 11:06 pm

“Umm, what ‘evidence’ do you claim to have that the existence of selective schools in a given area raises the average level of attainment?”

Please read down the thread for links to appropriate citations – the London Borough of Sutton perennially comes at or near the top of the league table of local education authorities (LEAs) in England based on average achievement of candidates from local maintained schools in the GCSE exams for 16 year-olds.

Sutton has a cluster of outstanding maintained selective schools, the effect of which is to raise average performance of schools across the borough. It happens that Sutton is a low spender on education compared with most other LEAs and the distribution of income of residents is close to the average for all London boroughs so the borough can hardly be regarded as unusually affluent. For all that, two of Sutton’s outstanding maintained boys schools and one of its outstanding maintained girls schools achieved better results than Eton in the A-Level exams for 18 year-olds.

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Bob B 01.18.08 at 11:29 pm

For general interest, here are links to wikipedia entries for the two most outstanding boys schools in Sutton as evidenced by the average attainment of candidates from the two schools in the A-Level exams last summer:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilson's_School
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallington_County_Grammar_School

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