Private schools, academies and hasty generalisations

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I was listening to the Today programme this morning on Radio 4, and there was an interview with Lord Adonis and Prof William Richardson (starting at 2:38:20 in the recording here). Adonis, who was the original architect of the academy programme, has a new book out and is putting forward the idea that private schools should join the state system by becoming academies, whereby they can ‘maintain their independence’, but also start providing a service more in tune with their charitable status and benevolent histories by sponsoring state schools and opening their doors to children without the funds to normally pay for a place. The idea behind this proposal is that these are ‘good’ schools that have strong discipline, a hard-working ethos and very high academic standards, and as a result, produce young adults with impressive qualifications and skills. By sponsoring state schools, the logic is that they can share their knowledge and ‘best practice’ in order to raise the standards in sponsored state schools and raise the aspirations of children within them.

As is so often the case with politics, these proposals and associated outcomes are hard to disagree with. Everyone would like children to have the best possible education. But is there something missing from this story? I think there is. I think that these arguments relating to the results of private schools and the benefits of sponsorship miss a big part of the picture. In effect, there has been a hasty generalisation we should be cautious in trusting. Ironically, one of the frequently criticised performance measures (that was introduced by the New Labour government; for criticism see Goldstein and Spiegelhalter 1996) provides a key basis for my argument: the contextual value added measure in school league tables. This measure was brought in in an attempt to make the measurement of school performance more fair. In essence, it attempts to adjust the performance measurement of schools to take into account the intake. It is well known that factors such as gender, month of birth, socioeconomic status, first language and special educational needs will affect the performance of an individual child in school; and thus, if a school has lots of children of this type, its performance is likely to be lower in absolute terms, even if it is a very good school.

Therein lies the rub. Private schools tend to have an intake that is systematically very different to state schools. The children in these schools are likely to have benefited, and will continue to benefit from, life conditions that are amenable to high achievement in the qualifications system and beyond. To think that simply dumping a randomly selected child from a less well-off family in one of these schools will result in them performing as well as a typical privately educated child is a hasty generalisation. If private schools started welcoming state educated children into their schools through scholarships or bursaries, the likelihood is that these children would be selected and would be the more gifted of state educated children, or be those with more educationally beneficial backgrounds. There could even be unforeseen circumstances to this scenario. For example, it is known that self-concept has an impact on achievement. A child that is high achieving in a moderately achieving class can suffer from suddenly being transplanted into a high achieving class where they are now at the lower end of ability – mainly because their self-perceptions of ability are damaged by this experience, and low motivation can swiftly follow (in self-concept research, this has been termed the big fish little pond effect). Also, transplanting one child into a private school is undoubtedly very different to transplanting a whole cohort of state educated children into a private school environment.

I am not saying that there will be no benefits of private schools sponsoring state schools. The private school ethos may translate well to state schools and provide benefits to educational achievement. Indeed, there are some examples of successful academies. Likewise the sharing of private school facilities would surely be a good thing, and if overall funding (direct or indirect) of state schools increases we would expect improved outcomes. However, I do think it is shortsighted to expect the academy programme and private school sponsorship to be a panacea for the wider social inequalities that impact on educational outcomes. We know, for example, that language ability already differs by socioeconomic status at the age of 3 (see Becker 2009)! I doubt the widening chasm of inequality in our society as a whole will be bridged by increased school independence, strictly enforced uniforms or a boarding school ethos.