There's been a renewed - renewed as in the record has jumped and we're hearing the same bit of the tune again - attention to the success of private education in the UK. At its most polemical is Ellie Mae O'Hagan's proposal to limit by quota the number of privately educated people "in our establishment":
If 7% of the population goes to private school, then it seems only fair that 7% of Britain’s elite jobs should go to privately educated individuals. This would include chief executives, barristers, journalists, judges, medical professionals and MPs. The rest of these jobs should be divided between comprehensive and grammar school alumni in a ratio that reflects the numbers educated in each.Now, leaving aside for one second the glaring moral catastrophe that this proposal represents, we have the idea that somehow the privately-educated achieve their success for reasons other than merit - Daddy's money and contacts, the right accent, the connections gleaned from going to school with the scions of the elite. That the young men and women leaving private schools in Britain might succeed because they are clever and have benefited from a fantastic education at brilliant schools is simply not considered. Yet I suspect, far more than cash or contacts, this is the main reason for the success of these young people.
The Social Mobility Commission set up by the UK's Conservative Government published a report that sets out the question well:
Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices. Whilst we do control for formal differences in academic achievement, we cannot model whether privately educated students are better prepared for job interviews and for the world of work directly.The authors, Lindsey Macmillan and Anna Vignoles from the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) poke around at this question - is it who you know, who you are, who your Dad is or is there something else?
Focusing just on the 6 months immediately after graduation, a graduate’s socio-economic status is not associated with their chances of entering the highest status occupations, except via the positive effect that it has on a person’s academic achievement, degree subject, degree class and university choice. In other words, there is no evidence that socio-economic status is playing an independent role in helping graduates secure access to the highest status occupations straight after graduation. That said, those who attended private school do have a better chance of entering these occupations, even compared to individuals from state schools with similar characteristics and similar levels of education achievement.The researchers controlled for using networks and contacts finding that, while these connections were used to get into good careers (and why not), even when they aren't public school educated young people still seem to do better. It's about the young people not the young people's mum or dad or the street they live in. That and the school.
This is rather the point. Instead of looking at private schools and asking what they're doing right, what we see - from right and left in Britain's political spectrum - is a classic piece of envy-driven politics. Because the young men and women who go to independent schools succeed in life we must do something to change things, to level the game by chopping off the legs of the private schools. Forget that parental income and influence, elite contacts and commitment to their children's success apply regardless of the school - let's abolish, tax, restrict or otherwise punish those schools for the sin of being very good at their job.
So instead of caterwauling about the iniquity of how some young people are fortunate to benefit from the great education on offer from Britain's independent schools let's ask how we get more of that great education for children whose parents haven't the cash to buy places at those schools. And I'm not talking here about the grand boarding institutions like Eton, Winchester and Westminster but those fantastic day schools like Leeds, Bradford and Manchester Grammar Schools. And there are ways to do this - starting with the Assisted Places scheme so spitefully scrapped by Tony Blair:
Under Margaret Thatcher’s government, they were plucked from poverty and taken out of state schools to attend top private schools instead, courtesy of the state.There you have it. Ordinary - even working-class - children given the chance of a bash at that great day school education. And it works. So let's have more of it? Or better still let's try some other ideas - voluntary schools vouchers where parents can take the cash the government would spend on their child's education, top it up if necessary and buy an education. How about something akin to the old direct grant system - essentially a private school means test (it gave me the option of putting Dulwich College on my choices at eleven). A bit like this:
The children of the Assisted Places Scheme are now in their 40s. And according to research published today, about half of them are likely to be earning at least £90,000 a year and sending their own children to private schools – but none of them will be dirtying their hands with any kind of manual work.
...a “much better” model was the Open Access scheme trialled by the Trust at Belvedere school in Liverpool, where every place was available on merit and the Trust paid for those whose parents could not afford it. The school had 30 per cent on free places, 40 per cent paying partial fees and the rest paying the full amount.Back in the 1950s private schools shifted their attention and effort from giving a pretty standard schooling to the scions of the elite - young men and women more or less ensured top positions by virtue of being the establishment - to developing an intensive and rigorous academic education to their students.
Using data from the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study, we examine how pupils born respectively in 1958 and 1970 were faring in the labour market by the time they had reached their early 30s. We show that the private/state earnings log wage differential rose significantly from 0.07 to 0.20 points (and thus the premium rose by 15 percentage points) between the two cohorts, after controlling for family background characteristics and for tests of cognitive and non-cognitive skills that they possessed at an early age. We also find that the private/state gap in the chances of gaining a higher degree rose from 0.08 to 0.18 between the cohorts. Our estimates imply that half the rise in the earnings differential can be attributed to the improved qualifications being achieved in private schools. These results are reinforced by similar findings based on successive cohorts in the British Household Panel Study.Why was this? Why did the private sector up its game on academic educational achievement? Look at that was happening in the 1950s - a generation of grammar school educated young people from all sorts of backgrounds were pushing at the door. We had a series of state-educated prime ministers - Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major - and the professions of law and medicine stopped being the preserve of the posh. If private schools hadn't upped their game they'd have been out of business.
So let's do the same again - I'm a neutral on the grammar school debate but if we can capture the spirit of those times and set young people on an aspirational academic course again we'll be doing every part of the education business a favour. I know this is possible because schools like Dixons, Michaela and West London Free School are doing just this by looking at the ethos and approach of the day schools and saying "we can do that in the state sector". Mix in some vouchers, assisted places and direct grant arrangements and we might get the step change in educational outcomes that we need and which our young people deserve.
But attacking young men and women with a private education - excluding, discriminating and barring - is a recipe for a worse system, for the poor and failing parts of our education provision to have just another excuse for not delivering the goods. In the end it doesn't really matter where someone went to school - business, arts and sports are judged on achievement, ability and contribution not how much cash someone's mum and dad had. That politics, law and journalism aren't should be their concern not an excuse to attack the private school educated people who succeed in those professions..