Examining the Results of Education | Tim Dennis

The furore surrounding the release of A-level results in the UK has led with torturous inevitability towards a government U-turn that was finally announced on 17thAugust. It followed hard on the heels of similar announcements made by the devolved administrations that had rendered support for Ofqual moderated grades an untenable position. 

Noticeable in the midst of the controversy and the signs borne by protesters was the bitterness directed towards perceived class inequalities highlighted by the moderation process. This point in itself is not unusual and is generally included every year in the ever expanding pantomime that accompanies exam results. The other fallout tied up in that criticism is inevitably that of the existence of independent schools, a label shunned in favour of ‘private’ due to the implications of exclusivity that come with that term.   

The allegations are ever the same, namely that private schools are elitist, promote inequality and underminestate schools. Describing the criticism of private schoolsin these terms is far more generous than those making up the baying mob for abolishment. Those outraged commentators prefer to homogenise anyone associated with private schools into a single enemy for ease of attack. If you send your children to a private school then you are probably a terrible snob privy to inherited or otherwise undeserved wealth. The children of such parents are uniformly spoilt monsters marking time in privileged circumstances until they are presented with their tickets to board life’s gravy train. And so on. 

This kind of venomous critique ignores the fact that not all private schools are the preserve of the highly wealthy or political elite. Many contain children from middle class backgrounds whose parents devote a large part of their finances to providing their children with what they feel to be the best education they can. Some of those parents will have worked their way up from humble beginnings with the hope of one day sending their children to a private school, a hope likely influenced by their own experiences of state education. Why should they not? Wanting the best for your children is an entirely natural impulse that parents will seek to fulfill with whatever means are available to them whether private education, moving to an area with the best possible state school, or private tutoring. Some of these options are limited by socio-economic circumstance, some are not, but no parent would propose that they did not want to give their children every possible advantage going forward. At what point do we draw the line on determining what is providing your children with an unfair advantage? As Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the Michaela Community School recently posed on social media, “When parents read to their young children, they give them advantage over others. Shall we stop them doing that too?”

Private education certainly has a financial barrier to entry, with fees rising fifty percent in the last ten years.Despite this the number of pupils has continued to rise over the previous decade. In 2019 the Financial Times reported that this was in part due to private schools providing £1bn in financial assistance which went some way to counterbalancing fee rises outpacing inflation. Aside from that factor there obviously remains an attraction to private education that if anything appears to have grown stronger even in the face of decreasing financial accessibility. The answer to why that is does not only lie in what pulls parents towards private schools, but what pushes them away from state schools. 

Rather than demonising private schools for creating inequality, time might be better spent examining why there is an increasing deficit of teachers working in state education alongside an a growing lack of secondary school places. This is not, as is sometimes claimed, largely due to the proactive ‘poaching’ of teachers by private schools and removes the individual decision making by teachers seeking better employment conditions for themselves. In October 2018, the Guardian reported that as many as fifteen thousand teachers per year were being drawn to teaching abroad due to the stress of working in the state sector. This issue also affects UK independent schools, which are in competition with international counterparts of which many are far more exclusive and wealthy. In November 2019, another Guardian piece described teachers “fleeing abroad” due to “cash-strapped English comprehensives.” It included the following passage:

“A call-out to Guardian readers for their experiences has drawn more than three hundred responses – many heartfelt – from teachers who reluctantly left their jobs in the state sector in the UK to teach abroad, usually in well-funded private institutions. Often exhausted by their experiences in the UK, they complain of excessive workload, stress, a lack of work-life balance, funding cuts, a dread of Ofsted, an obsession with paperwork, accountability measures, poor behaviour, children bringing weapons to school, high staff turnover … the list goes on.”

There is reasonable criticism of state schools that often teachers are being paid more to keep their students in the classroom and as placated as possible. They areessentially conducting crowd control, whilst oftendisempowered in dealing with bad behaviour (in common with adults in general) by a lack of support from authority. The impact of misbehavior and the disruption it can have on learning is a discussion that is absolutely required, including the examination of the part that deprivation has to play on the prevalence of such an issue. Poverty and the breakdown of stable family environments both contribute to disengagement from education. Undesirable behaviour is also present in private schools but it is unlikely to take the form of anti-social disruption that would be allowed to affect the education of their peers. On the basis of these factors it would be extremely difficult to claim that you might not be enticed by better working conditions and higher pay, let alone deny others the right to that choice.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) published findings on the 2nd March describing one in five teachers leaving the profession after two years and four in ten after five, with that rate increasing with each successive cohort. Apart from the experiences described above a strong contributing factor to teacher shortfall is pay, particularly for the worst affected subjects including maths and sciences. Graduates with those qualifications are unlikely to be attracted to public sector employment without more competitive salary offers. This comes at a time where an acknowledged pupil population bulge is arriving in schools, with the Local Government Association warning in August 2019 that half of all councils (seventy one) will have a shortfall in secondary education places – amounting to an estimated 134,000 – by 2024. Local authorities are expected to ensure the allocation of school places but cannot routinely open new maintained schools unless they apply to open a new academy; a system which now accounts for 77% of secondary schools that is directly funded and controlled by Whitehall. 

A vicious cycle comprised of a lack of funding, increasing demand for places and a terrible recruitment and retention of teachers disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged schools far more than the existence of private schools. 22% of schools in the most affluent areas of the country have vacancies or temporary filled positions, rising to 29% amongst the most disadvantaged outside of London and a staggering 46% inside London. Schools in deprived areas struggle with a high staff turnover that results in heavy reliance on newly qualified and lower experienced staff. The EPI found that promised government pay rises, incentives and other options for 2020 would increase school costs by 1.8%, exactly matching the minimum by inflation funding per pupil – or a real terms funding freeze. 

An argument to reduce inequality is that short of full abolition, charitable status and tax exemption should be removed in order to help fund improvements in state education. This has the dangerous flaw of driving up the operating costs of private schools in a manner that would be immediately be reflected in even greater fees. It would make private education even more inaccessible and elitist than it is already perceived to be. It is of course entirely possible that this is the desired objective by those on the left pursuing a softer option, an apparently reasonable base camp from which to later pursue the Everest of state integration. Critics of the slowly increasing number of private schools might pause for a moment to consider that a more rapid expansion would increase market competition in a manner that would limit fee rises if not drive them down. This would be especially helpful if wages rises continue to lag behind inflation. Neither would abolishing private education somehow surge thousands of teachers back into state education whilst the incentives are so poor. In fact it would have precisely the opposite effect causing an exodus either abroad or out of the profession. 

Not all schools are created equal, whether in private or state education. The abolition and state integration ofprivate schools would not create equality of opportunity for children. Imbalances in funding, resources, places, demand and teacher quality would still exist only now in a unitary sector. What then would the commissars of absolute equality pursue? The amount and quality of pencils that parents provide their children, in case inequality of stationary disadvantages others? Parents with the determination and resources will still try to provide the best possible start in life for their children.All that would be created is yet another set of perceived inequalities on different criteria. Private schools are not a decisive factor on the success of children attending state schools and too much time and political capital is levied from targeting them at the expense of evaluating and tackling serious issues in the state system.

The massive emphasis on the results based assembly line that is our educational system is itself a problem. So much pressure is placed on young people to aim for higher education that they do not necessarily need. A-Levels have had a downstream effect on GCSEs, which in turn impacts on primary schools as they try to prepare children for their turn in the exam factory. This is courtesy of the devaluing and oversaturation of university attendance by New Labour, which also reintroduced tuition fees so creating a business model for universities that they are loath to abandon. Young people have been sold a lie that many have and will continue to discover, namely that the ‘high paid’ jobs their degrees are meant to earn them do not exist and they are instead saddled with increasing amounts of long-term student debt. What ‘high paid’ jobs that might be available are likely to be offset by the repaying of that debt. There is so much apparent resentment over what advantages others may or may not have due to how much pressure there exists on huge numbers of young people achieve university places that they do not need. Spare a thought for the 250,000 students awaiting their BTEC results who would have been largely ignored by the media even without this year’s results fiasco.

It is the case that the uppermost echelons of society traditionally frequent certain of the most historic and prestigious private schools. However, to prejudicially label all private school children, parents and staff equivalently as top hat wearing oppressors of the poorest in society is an extreme and willfully disingenuous tactic. It is too often used to mask a full appreciation of the failure of successive governments to tackle serious and developing problems with state education. There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of how, why and to what extent young people are educated, concurrent with examining the pressing demand for school places and lack of teachers. Academies have not proved successful and remove schools from the administration of local authorities, those best placed to understand and act in accordance with the best interest of their communities. Even with a large-scale improvement in state schools there will be an uneven level of quality in which talented children will be lost in the melee. The best solution for elevating those talents was and could be again, selective state grammar schools, the best of which (Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet) ranked fifth when compared against independent schools in 2019. 

The necessary and overdue reform of education will remain elusive as long as the major parties continue to be allowed to pose as its saviour (as they do with the NHS) without delivering more than superficial sticking-plaster policies. It will also be a divisive and bitterly contested issue whilst a gun is being held to the collective head of those who have chosen to try and do the best for their children in the face of an overburdened and failing system.

Photo Credit.

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