Education

What private schools teach state schools

Private schools succeed because of their focus on subject knowledge – it's time the state sector took note.

As headmaster of the exclusive Wellington College (fees for boarders: £32,940 per year), Anthony Seldon is remarkably coy about championing the privileges of private education. His report for the Social Market Foundation, Schools United: Ending the Divide Between Independent and State, published this week, is his latest attempt to talk himself out of a job through either abolishing fee-paying schools altogether, or eroding any distinction between the state and independent sectors. Seldon’s defensiveness is driven by the fact that private-school pupils are more likely than their state-educated peers to get better exam results, go to the most selective universities, secure jobs in the elite professions and earn more money.

Seldon argues private schools are perceived as a crude means for wealthy parents to buy advantage for their offspring; as such, Seldon argues, private schools have ‘few friends left among academics or commentators and virtually no friends in high places in politics’. There’s long been an irony in the private-school discussion and it’s one Seldon, to his credit, tackles head-on: while scraping together the money for private education is not considered socially acceptable in polite society, spending money on an expensive house in the catchment area of a good school, or paying for private tuition to secure entry to a grammar school, or experiencing a sudden religious conversion to get your child into a faith school, is seen as simple common sense among the same sharp-elbowed middle classes.

As Seldon notes, some state schools achieve better exam results than many private schools. When seen in this context, the heated opposition to fee-paying parents is a distraction from the real issue of why many state schools are underperforming. Despite the attention being given to Seldon’s suggestion that children attending popular state schools from wealthy families should pay £20,000 per year for the privilege, Schools United does actually raise the issue of underperformance in the state sector.

The report compares the qualifications held by teachers in private and state schools and shows that more teachers in the independent sector hold either a master’s degree or a doctorate. More significant is the difference in the number of secondary teachers holding a first degree in their subject specialism: only 45 per cent of state-school maths teachers have a maths degree compared to 70 per cent in the private sector. However, more teachers in state schools have the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) qualification. So, while children at private schools have teachers who are subject specialists, generic teaching skills are considered appropriate for state-school kids.

Seldon identifies a couple of reasons why the private sector is able to attract teachers with higher academic qualifications in relevant disciplines. He suggests subject specialists are tempted by the higher levels of pay on offer and the less stringent requirements for them to hold formal teaching qualifications. Both of these are undoubtedly true, but I would include two additional factors. Firstly, subject specialists want to teach their subject and not a general or vocational qualification. For example, a teacher with a PhD in chemistry is more likely to want to teach GCSE and A-level chemistry, rather than a double award in combined science which may contain little actual chemistry. Secondly, teachers who are committed to their subject are more likely to want to teach in a school that values specialist knowledge rather than (or at least as well as) general teaching skills. The importance given to subject knowledge is the main reason parents are prepared to pay, move house, or undergo religious conversion to get their kids into particular schools.

Based on Seldon’s findings, it could be reasonably argued that state schools need the following in order to emulate the best independent schools: teachers with, at the very least, a first degree in their specialist subject; a curriculum that is driven by subject knowledge and which provides teachers with an opportunity to teach their specialist subject at a high level; less stringent teacher-training requirements; and more money to offer teachers better pay. Unfortunately, Seldon’s obsession with school structures and funding sources, alongside his confused notion that it’s the role of schools to teach happiness and emotional literacy, prevents him from seeing what is really distinctive about the best schools.

Seldon lists 10 features common to the best independent schools that he proposes all state schools should take on board. They include things like posh uniforms, opportunities for community service, leadership, and careers advice. It makes no reference to the importance of knowledge within the curriculum. Indeed, Seldon’s first recommendation, for a focus on ‘holistic education’, includes the throwaway phrase ‘in addition to excellent academic education…’. But the excellent academic education is the crucial point in the success of the schools he so admires.

Without a focus on excellent academic education, the longer school day and opportunities for boarding Seldon advocates become mere containment measures. Seldon quotes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ department at the University of Pennsylvania and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at the University of Birmingham to support his proposals that schools should teach character and leadership and seek to ‘improve wellbeing and reduce obesity’. Pay £20,000 a year for that? This kind of nannying and micromanagement is what kids in state schools get by the bucket-load already. And it already comes for free.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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