Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

Education, Education, & Private Schools

I came across this “News” on the Conservative Party’s own website : Widening education gap between the many and the few

There are so many things about this post that niggle me that it’s difficult to know where to start – but I’ll try !

OK – first up – the language is lifted straight from Gordon Brown’s speech yesterday – fine, that’s politics. It is clear however that they seem pretty pleased that a privileged few are apparently making greater educational achievements than the rest of the school population – that’s not a GOOD thing in my book – Oh but wait – I’m missing the Tory point (not the first time that points have been missed with Tories though)  – they’re blaming this on Labour.

Right, now I see. Actually – no I don’t – the figures that they quote (which incidentally have been in the public domain since August 2009 – so why any of this is “news” I do not know) – do show some significant differences between A level performance in independent schools and state schools. They also show some similarities – state school performance at 3 A’s has roughly doubled since 1998 – (I wonder why they chose that date – and not 1996 – the year before Labour came to Government ?) – whilst performance at independent schools using the same measure has – hey ! roughly doubled. Which does make it even less newsworthy.

So really the gap hasn’t widened – it’s the same gap – except that all students are far more likely than they were in the dark days before Labour took office, of gaining 3 A’s.

So murky are the Conservatives’  figures though that it’s really difficult to work out exactly what is going on here. Now I thought that there were around 300,000 A level students last year ( A-level results: One in four A-levels passed at grade A | Education | ) but it seems the Conservative party think otherwise – If 32.6 % of students in private schools gained the 11,500 three straight A’s they claim, then that gives us, by my calculations, 35,276 A level students in private schools – so that leaves 264,724 or so in the state sector.  A little bit more than just three times as many that the Tories claim.

That of course would make the paltry figure of 9,725  students with three A’s from the state sector even worse – but hang on – 9,725 isn’t 8.1% of 264,724 – it’s only 3.6%.  8.1% would represent 21,442.

But which is it ? Something’s wrong here isn’t it ?

Well maybe they’ve got their sums wrong again.

Look closely though, I suspect that may not be it  – they’re not really doing what I’m doing – I’m comparing independent sector with state sector. Isn’t that what they’re doing ? No – they’re (deliberately ?) creating confusion by saying “comprehensive” – which of course leaves out all manner of different types of state schools. It doesn’t include grammar schools and other selective schools (obviously not important to Conservatives !) – it doesn’t presumably involve Voluntary Aided & faith schools – it may not include Foundation Schools or Academies – Who is to say what it does include ? Not the Tories that’s for sure.

I wonder if those schools were included whether things would look rather different. Perhaps if they included FE  and Sixth Form Colleges as well they would. (Don’t forget also that the Government also ultimately have a responsibility for monitoring and maintaining standards in Independent schools)

So I’m not convinced by any of this “data”

Even if I were, I would point out that a commercial organisation commanding fees on the basis of a reputation for getting students to 3 straight A’s would be hardly like to select pupils who were unlikely to do so. State schools on the other hand tend to take the students they end up with – and are obliged to adopt an approach which states that “Every Child Matters” – that’s ALL of them – not just the straight A students, not just the ones with money, not just the ones who are likely to go to university. ALL of them.

So I don’t buy the Conservative idea of turning all state schools into private schools. Private schools achieve the success they do (and I could argue extensively about narrow definitions of educational achievement) because they provide only for a moneyed elite. In just the same way as Nicholas Winterton finds that he needs to avoid the different type of people travelling in standard class, parents sending their children to private schools find their oasis of privilege by paying for something which the other ‘type of people’ can not afford (or like me – choose not to).

By making all schools into independent schools, the advantage that independent schools now hold would vanish. It would however quickly be replaced by a hierarchy of provision with the richest people receiving the most prestigious education – and the poor receiving a provision based on the minimum cost to the government, rather than the maximum benefit to the pupil.

I call that a scandalously archaic approach to education in the 21st century – I will do everything I can to oppose that.

UPDATE Comment via twitter from Secretary of State for Children, schools & Families, Ed Balls (@EdBallsMP) You’re right – FE students deliberately excluded RT @northernheckler: my latest blog on Tories & private schools

So encouraging to get feedback from the man who is ultimately my  ‘boss’ in education, on the occasion of my 100th blog !! Thanks Ed !

February 21, 2010 - Posted by | education, politics | , , , , ,


  1. Those dark days of which you speak, suggestive are they not of Tory short memories, and there is a pandemic of it lately – a nervous bunch are the Tories, 13 years of the Labour party and they might achieve little more than a hung parliament in the next election, I shan’t need my tissues.

    What are your opinions of coop schools old chap?

    Comment by raincoatoptimism | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Co-op schools – Currently every new school which is opened has an obligation (except under certain circumstances – which are obscure) to hold a competition to see who will “run” the school – I feel that co-operatives would be a good way to do this – in my opinion far preferable to private sector organisations who might put the needs of the shareholder before the needs of the pupils; and preferable to religious based sponsors – to which I am philosophically opposed (but acknowledge that they command widespread support across traditional political and religious boundaries.

      I feel that co-operatives would offer a far more effective and responsible model of Governance than that which is prevalent in community schools, which I feel is still a hang over from many years ago, and depends on a very dedicated small number of volunteers to be truly successful.

      I am not up to speed on current proposals by any party on this however – and would like to consider more fully.

      I’m also not opposed in principle to having private education companies involved in running schools – I want it to ‘just work’ – not worried about the ideology – there must be checks and balances though – can not have schools becoming feeding schools for the local car manufacturer or whatever, or have Coca Cola designing the curriculum, etc.

      Comment by northernheckler | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. It’s very noble of you to want it to work, in spite of ideology. This often gets in the way of identifying what works best. In principle I’m not for private schools, but it would silly of me to say that they have not produced some admirable results, or the type of ingenuity that could be considered in comprehensive schools, only there are wider societal ills attributed to them, and other ills that they largely highlight.

    On the other matters we are both agreed.

    Comment by raincoatoptimism | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. At the risk of going on and on about Finland…if the Tories really want to reduce inequality why not emulate Finland by ensuring that our state schools (and FE colleges) are so good nobody in their right mind would want to waste money on a private school and we might do as well as Finland in the PISA tables.
    The PISA website is worth a look,3417,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

    Comment by ronniegordon | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ll try & find time to look at that.

      I don’t know anything about Finland’s schools – but have been able to visit some of the Danish schools in Copenhagen. I was struck by the radically different approach to education – far more student led. I’m not sure that it would ever be acceptable in the UK

      I also visited a special school for children with severe learning difficulties – exceptionally well resourced, but very segregated – and also a very unimaginative and therapy led curriculum (by which I mean dominated by a health perspective – rather than an integrated multiprofessional team approach).

      The level of taxation seemed extremely high to me – and again I wondered whether the UK public would accept this – I might myself, but I have sympathy with those would blanch at 60%+ tax rates

      Comment by northernheckler | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  4. In this area, most schools are listed by the DFES as comprehensive, when they are partially selective. For instance, go to and look at the two Watford Grammar Schools, Parmiters & Rickmansworth. The cohort that took the A levels shown was 50% selected by academic examination, 10% by music and almost every other entrant a sibling of those previously selected.

    Even last year, the schools still admitted 35% academic selection and 10& music, with a good sibling top up.

    Independent schools largely achieve the success that they do because they select academically. Ditto for all the highly achieving state schools in this area. But not all independent schools have a high level academic intake: there are some that do not and take those who do not want to go through the state sector.

    If you look at the intake for the highest academically achieving independent schools, you will find that the number of really wealthy families is very small. Loot at the school gates and for every Merc you will see a Citroen people carrier and a 7 year old hatchback. And the real surprise is the number of state school teachers who send their pupils to independent schools.

    Comment by SB | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • I suspect the largest omission from the Tories list is the colleges (as Ed Balls points out).

      Would love to know where the Academies fit in as well.

      With a bit of imagination the Conservatives could “spin” (and I mean that in a nice way) their ideas very imaginatively – looking at radical solutions seeking out the best features of different approaches, but I feel that they just re-emphasise age old class divisions, and come up with the same old same old.

      Comment by northernheckler | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’m not a fan of for-profit education. Profit-maximisation as a goal tends to result in irresponsible behaviour as costs are externalised and corners cut. Rather than delivering quality education, there’s a focus on paying dividends to shareholders.

    The Tory proposals on Swedish-style reform would be costly. In Sweden, though there is broad support for the reforms, there’s little evidence it’s resulted in a quantitative improvement in standards.

    Co-operative schools seem like a good idea in that the democratic governance model could be more inclusive of staff, pupils, and the wider community.

    Comment by james | February 22, 2010 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: