Independent schools: what role for future?

20 Jan 2008 BBC News

Private schools' gain over state?
By Mike Baker

Mike Baker
This has been a rollercoaster week for independent schools.






Firstly, the Charity Commission reminded them they must demonstrate how they provide a public benefit,

including to those who cannot afford their fees, if they are to retain charitable status.

Secondly, one of the most innovative and outspoken independent school head teachers, Dr Anthony Seldon from Wellington College, accused his own sector of remaining "entrenched in the 20th century".

Dr Seldon argued that it is "not right" for independent schools to "cream off" the brightest pupils and "the best teachers". He argued they should put something back into the state system through an involvement in academies, trust schools, or federations.

Few subjects generate as much heated debate as "independent" education; it tends to bring out tribal tendencies.

The arguments about public benefit are complex. They tend to get bogged down in hard-to-answer questions about the exact impact of independent schools on their state school neighbours.

The London School of Economics has highlighted one measurable way in which state schools are losing a valuable resource, namely teachers, to the independent sector

Meanwhile, criticism of the independent sector's funding advantage is countered by the argument that parents who pay school fees pay twice for education: once through their taxes for a service they do not use and again through their contribution to independent schools.

Parents in the independent sector have certainly had to dig deeper. Over the past 20 years, fees have more than doubled even after allowing for inflation. Some of that money, of course, has gone to fund bursaries for students from low-income families.

But until now there has been very little hard evidence of the impact of independent schools on their state-funded counterparts.

Now, though, new research from economists at the London School of Economics has highlighted one measurable way in which state schools are losing a valuable resource, namely teachers, to the independent sector.

Teacher recruitment

In their study of "Competition for Private and State School Teachers", the LSE economists argue that there is a "loss" to state schools, and an equivalent "bonus" to private schools, in the net flow of publicly-trained teachers into the private sector.

They have produced some interesting statistics. While the independent sector educates just over 7% of all pupils in England, it employs 14% of teachers.

The apparent mismatch is because of the much smaller class sizes in independent schools.

Interestingly, the class size difference - as measured by pupil-teacher ratios - has widened since the 1980s. The ratio is now 18:1 in the state sector compared with 9:1 in independent schools.

So, with fee income rising ahead of inflation, the independent schools have used this premium to recruit teachers at a faster rate than pupils.

They have also particularly recruited better-qualified and more experienced teachers, as well as those in shortage subjects, like maths and science.

Thus while the proportion of male state school teachers with a higher degree is 45.2%, in the private sector it is 55.6%. A similar gap is evident when comparing teachers with higher degrees in sciences, maths and engineering. The gap amongst female teachers is also evident, although less marked.

In 2006, independent schools recruited 1,125 teachers straight out of universities and training colleges.

In addition, they recruited 2,009 experienced teachers from state schools. The flow, of course, is not all one way, as some teachers move back into the state sector. But the net flow to the independent sector was 1,400 experienced teachers in 2006.

The report says this amounts to a "significant loss" on the state's investment in teacher training and that this transfer of experience teachers is a "substantial bonus" for the private sector.

State school 'damage'

Of course, parents paying school fees could argue that this means they are getting at least some small return for the taxes they pay on top of school fees.

When this research was presented at a Nuffield Foundation seminar last week it drew a furious response from the head teacher of a well-known independent school. He said he had, in his many years of headship, received only five applications from teachers at state schools and had never appointed any.

What I found surprising about this response was not only the defensive anger but also the sense that this sort of research was an attack on private schools.

Rejecting the charge of "poaching" teachers, this head teacher insisted that the independent sector was attracting much-needed, high quality graduates who might otherwise not have entered teaching at all.

How much of the excellent academic performance in the private sector is down to the recruitment of the best-qualified and most experienced teachers from the state?
Pointing to the independent sector's academic achievements in science subjects, he added: "For the first time in our history, this country cannot do without the products of the independent sector - yet our sector gets no credit for that".

He does indeed have a good point about the achievement in science. But what most struck me was the contrast between his defensiveness and the views of Dr Seldon, who argued that the independent sector should do more to help state schools, precisely because of its privileged position.

In fact, much of the LSE research was music to the ears of the independent sector. It underlined the smaller classes, the better working conditions for teachers, and the long-term benefits, in terms of future earnings, for its pupils.

It also did what research tends to do: it raised yet more questions. How much of the excellent academic performance in the private sector is down to the recruitment of the best-qualified and most experienced teachers from the state?

And, to what extent - if at all - does this outflow of teachers damage state schools?

Some of these questions may be impossible to answer. But it does seem that within the independent sector there are two very different responses to scrutiny: one is that the independent sector should be left alone to do its own thing and the other says, on the contrary, it should do more to share its successful recipe with state schools.

What the LSE research seems to show is that, whatever your views of the rights or wrongs of private education, you cannot say it has no impact on state schools.

As to the exact nature of that impact, I leave that to your tribal tendencies if you have any.

User Comments

Michael White - 19 Jan 2008

I read somewhere on this website that Mike Baker gives an objective diagnosis of the subject. This article is one of the most left-wing articles of its type that I have ever seen.

The whole reason that independent schools do well is because they control admissions and accept pupils from well-motivated families. There is a misconception that every child is academically identical, but not everyone is. Bright pupils who have been nurtured well will naturally do much better than those less academic who are from badly motivated families.

As well as all this, the whole argument centres around the ineptitude of state schools to educate pupils well. Maybe if the government ditched some of their ridiculous beauracracies they could improve them a bit. It is the government's job to educate everyone well, not offload the best pupils into independent schools and leave the rest to rot.

Of course, at the end of the day, I am just another middle class. So I suppose I should be killed for having been lucky enough to escape the meddling fingers of the government and local council. Now, will this article be publised as part of the fair and unbiased website which this claims to be, or will it be deleted?

John Ling - 22 Jan 2008

Such a shame that the rhetoric of envy once again masks reality. There is no doubt at all that the same degree of commitment, dedication and ability is manifest in the Headteachers, the staff and the governors of state schools as it is in the independent sector. The difference is that state schools are controlled by the stultifying hand of central government. Make all schools independent, allow parents to choose, and you would have a very different picture. The complication is that State secondary schools receive £3800 per child PER ANNUM, rising at 6th Form. Independant schools receive between £2400 - £4500 PER TERM for day pupils.

The £3,800 per pupil per annum is sourced from tax revenues paid by those who are in work, and not paid by those who aren't, or can't or won't. But their children still receive an education.

Given the smaller per capita income, state schools go for the economy of scale, but still struggle with their budgets. Thus the average state sector class size of 23, against the independant sector's 15.

By the way, the net loss of teaching staff to the independent sector last yesar was 0.28%. Not really worth getting too excited about, given the bigger picture.

AM - 26 Jan 2008

Independent Schools

What Dr Seldon proposes simply won't work. Independent schools could no more make a success of a comprehensive than it's existing management. The problems are structural, and deep seated. The state sector tries to achieve something quite different from the Independent sector. The independent sector is about excellence, the state sector is about managing a very diverse group of individuals to achieve an "acceptable" level of outcomes. Excellence cannot be implanted onto a modern comprehensive where perhaps upto 30-40% of children are not active learners.

Far too much is made of facilities and supposed resource advantage of Independent schools, this is simply a factor of the size of most Independents compared to the state sector.

The elephant in the room is that the failure of the state sector is due to it's inherent structure and ethos.

Where state schools have an indepdent school ethos their performance is on par or even better than the independent sector. But this is very difficult to achieve in most inner city schools, as the new "child centered" and other teaching methods regard the traditional teaching methods (which work so well for Independents) as draconian.

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