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A new report by the Social Market Foundation for the Sutton Trust, a well-respected charity with interests in social mobility and education, caught my eye last week (http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/private-school-premium-of-194000-revealed-in-new-report/ ).
 
The report finds that children who attend an independent school will earn £194,000 more on average between the ages of 26 and 42 than their state-educated peers.  Clearly, this premium is also affected by family background and by educational achievement early in life, but after correcting for these factors the study found that the gap in earnings persisted at just under £60,000.

The Sutton Trust suggests that this occurs because students from independent schools are more likely to gain good A levels, often in ‘facilitating’ subjects helpful for entry to selective universities, and more likely to gain degrees.  There is no evidence to suggest that this is a consequence of favouritism (in either direction) but rather a result of the small class sizes, fine teaching and learning and excellent preparation for both examinations and university application found in the independent sector.  Looking at the two sectors as a whole, students in independent schools make more progress from GCSE to A levels (source Sutton Trust); their ‘value-added’ is greater.  (Annoyingly, value added figures to cover the period from age 11 to GCSE are not directly comparable between the two sectors but it would seem likely that the independent school students make equally good progress during these years).  Independent schools educate around 7% of all school children although this figure rises to 18% of pupils over the age of 16 (http://www.isc.co.uk/research ); a student from an independent school is 5 times more likely to attend Oxbridge than a student from the state sector and 55 times more likely than a student who receives free school meals.  (To praise independent schools does not, of course, mean that state schools are bad; this is not a zero sum game.  I am well aware of the huge efforts of many teachers and other staff in some very challenging schools to raise standards and aspirations and of the success of the academy schools with which Birkdale competes locally.)
 
For many people these statistics will be powerful arguments in favour of eliminating independent schools but all except for the most impassioned abolitionists would want to reflect on whether removing some of the most effective schools in the world is really a sensible way of dealing with this situation.  The denial of choice to parents in a liberal democracy would render this politically unacceptable; equally, the financial implications of having to educate the pupils who attend independent schools, currently at no cost to the public purse, would render this economically impossible.
 
Furthermore, the same argument would justify the abolition of grammar schools, free schools, faith based schools and so on until only a comprehensive utopia (or dystopia depending on your point of view) would remain.  Many grammar schools (only 2% of pupils at these schools receive free school meals) and comprehensive schools perform at the highest levels but are effectively selecting by postcode and therefore by house price and parental affluence; many independent schools would have much more socially diverse pupil intakes achieved through extensive bursary schemes.
 
The Sutton Trust response is to argue for an ‘Open Access’ scheme for the 100 top independent day schools, sponsored by the government.  Entry to the independent schools would continue to be by merit but, once selected, parents would pay a sliding scale of fees; the wealthiest would pay full fees, the middle earners would make a contribution and the poorest would pay nothing.  The Sutton Trust estimates that the average cost per pupil would be slightly less than for a conventional state education (a figure surprisingly and notoriously hard to calculate) so that there would be no additional burden on the tax payer.  Most independent schools, including Birkdale, would welcome such a scheme as it would allow a natural extension of our current bursary schemes to a much larger number of pupils.  Such an expansion of perhaps 30 or 40 pupils per year for each independent school would have little effect on the surrounding state schools but might transform the life chances of those pupils.  A seven year trial at the Belvedere School in Liverpool has produced very pleasing results (http://www.suttontrust.com/programmes/archived-programmes/school-programmes/belvedere-school-open-access-scheme/).
 
The line between state and independent schools has become increasingly blurred with free schools and academies now seemingly a permanent feature of the educational landscape, perhaps reducing the ideological objections to funding independent schools from the state.  In any case, the usual triumph of pragmatism over ideology means that most parents reviewing the choices available to them for the secondary education of their children will be much more interested in the quality of the education than in what type of organisation banks the cheque.

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