Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Blunder or Bias?

Blunder or Bias?


Call me paranoid, but you might begin to think there is something of a plot against the independent sector in education. 

Even if there isn’t a plot, there is certainly a willingness amongst the media to jump on any story or bandwagon that seems to knock us. In September the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published a piece of research, Differences in degree outcomes: the effect of subject and student characteristics, which stated that, when all students are taken into account, 82% of graduates from state schools gained firsts or upper seconds, compared with 73% from independent schools. 

Only that was wrong. They’d transposed the figures: the higher figure applied to independent schools, and even the closeness of the figures then is somewhat misleading as such a high proportion of independently-educated children go on to university. That’s the trouble with all such statistics (lies, damned lies…etc).. 

When this was made public last Tuesday, HMC and GSA (the leading independent schools’ associations) called on HEFCE to put this right publicly. We are still waiting. 

Don’t get me wrong. Neither I nor the sector seek to say that x is better than y, that one particular type of school is better than the other. In fact the independent sector encompasses such a range of schools, a very broad church indeed, that we would be foolish to do so. But we have to speak out when falsehoods are promulgated and when the press, sadly, is so ready to make invidious comparisons that appear to do down the independent sector. 

HEFCE was wrong in the first place to concentrate on “school type” as a proxy measure: it would be much better looking at disadvantage, gender and race. As my neighbour Hilary French, Headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls and Joint Chair of the GSA/HMC Universities committee said: 

“Independent schools prepare young people for higher education through excellent education, pastoral care and co-curricular activities. And we educate pupils from the very able to those whose talents lie beyond the academic, from the wealthy to those who would qualify for Free School Meals. And numbers in independent schools are higher than ever.”

Following near-silence from HEFCE, apart from a very muted apology, and depressingly little reaction in the press, that might have been the end of it. Except that yesterday, on Guy Fawkes Day, there appeared another headline, this time from Cambridge Assessment. This claimed (according to Times Higher Education) that 

“in Russell Group universities, private school leavers were about a third less likely to achieve a First or 2:1 than state school students with similar prior attainment”. 

The study says that students with at least one A* grade were about 40% more likely to get a First or 2:1 compared with students who didn’t receive an A*, once other factors were allowed for.

Isn’t that a little obvious? Top grades at A level are the best indicator of future degree success. Rather than trying to explain myself, I will quote Chris Ramsey, Head of King’s School Chester and the other Joint Chair of the GSA/HMC Universities committee: 

“In the real world more independent school pupils get A*s in the first place, and overall get better degrees. Previous, more thorough research shows it is wrong to conclude that more than a tiny number – around 1% - of state school pupils entering at the same level will do better at university”.

(Chris’s last point merely observes that, where a state school applicant nonetheless gets that A*, or more than one, they will clearly possess a very high level of ability and can be expected to do particularly well at university).

Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, weighed in too: 

“The most important thing to understand is that overall, independently educated pupils enter university with better qualifications and do better than state school pupils. This is clearly the case based on the findings of the biggest and most authoritative study to be carried out so far, by HEFCE, which looked at the whole university intake. This new research focusses yet again on a small percentage of students, is less comprehensive, and has produced results which are a sideshow and miss the real point”.

Lies, damned lies and statistics! It’s no secret that independent schools are very finely tuned to advising and supporting their students in their university applications, particularly those to the Russell Group (top 20) universities. It’s one of the things that parents pay for in independent school (though don’t forget the huge numbers in independent schools who receive bursary support with fees). While there is no such thing as an “average” school, the average independent school student may well be better prepared currently for A level and university entrance than the average state school applicant: indeed, because it’s an area of expertise the sector has developed over many years, university application and preparation for it form the focus for collaboration between the two sectors perhaps more frequently than any other aspect. 

We really do prepare our applicants thoroughly. I spent yesterday morning as one of 15 teachers providing interview experience for potential medics. This was giving them practice in the MMI – Mini Medical Interview - process. Applicants for medical school are no longer sat down for a 20-minute chat. Instead they complete a circus of tasks, role-plays and tests all against the clock. My colleagues were questioning, pushing, probing, playing the parts of difficult patients or awkward consultants (the latter caricature played with great relish by one or two teachers, I thought! A Jesmond thing, perhaps?). It was a challenging hour-and-a-bit for our students, who completed eight of these varying tasks within it. Real pressure, real practice: just what they need.

It’s hard to think of any school preparing them better for the real thing: but in a sense it’s simply “what we do” (though not without great input and effort from teachers).

I guess all I’m saying is that neither academics nor those with axes to grind in the media should seek to undermine what our sector does just because we do such a good job. 

It’s what we’re here for, after all.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster