State schools don’t need the private sector’s advice

On Tuesday, Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, announced plans to make private schools’ tax breaks conditional on their entering a partnership with state schools. From the reaction, you would think he’d suggested turning them into Maoist training camps. The headteacher of Hunt’s alma mater, University College school, called the plans “offensive bigotry”; the Independent Schools Council went for “patronising nonsense”; the Telegraph and Mail complained of “class war”.

Some perspective: the tax relief in question is worth £150m a year; less than 3% of private schools’ fee income. Those fees have gone up by more than 3% in each of the past 20 years. If that’s what counts as class war these days, then I’m with Karl Marx. If anything, the proposal is too generous to the sector, giving it the opportunity to keep its tax break by signing up to support comprehensives. There are a number of high-quality partnerships between the sectors, and these would happen regardless of financial incentives, because they are mutually beneficial. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that all private schools have valuable wisdom to bestow upon their less fortunate state colleagues.

A simple comparison of results shows private schools far ahead – twice as many Etonians get into Oxbridge every year than from among the entire cohort of 80,000 receiving free school meals – but this is because their pupils tend to be doing much better when they start school.

The OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies allow us to compare both types of schools after controlling for the socioeconomic differences between intakes. They have consistently found that state schools do as well or better than private. We also know that, at university, state-school-educated students outperform privately educated ones with the same grades.

These findings may seem counter-intuitive but are backed up by the experiences of those prestigious private schools that have taken up the government’s offer to sponsor a comprehensive through the academy programme. Dulwich college pulled out of its sponsorship of Isle of Sheppey academy in 2013, admitting that staff did not have the necessary skills to drive up standards. Wellington college’s academy was found by Ofsted to require improvement earlier this year. Headteacher Anthony Seldon, who is far more committed than most in the sector to genuine partnership, has acknowledged he was naive about the scale of the challenge.

Jon Coles, the chief executive of United Learning, which runs both private and state schools, wrote earlier in the year: “The truth is that not all that many of our independent school heads would be great heads of challenging academies.” He quoted one of his private school heads: “I take my hat off to these guys who run academies. I wouldn’t last five minutes in that environment.”

Coles is right; while there are great practitioners in both sectors, teaching well in comprehensives requires a different level of persistence, commitment and skill. Classes are much larger and the ability range is typically much wider.

The quality of teaching and leadership I’ve seen in our best inner-city state schools, such as Westminster academy and Mulberry school in Tower Hamlets – is world class and would, frankly, be wasted in the private sector.

Indeed, the real story of the past decade is the improvement we’ve seen in comprehensive schools, particularly in inner-city London and Birmingham. Children from the poorest 10% in these areas are now doing as well as the national average for all pupils.

The reasons for this improvement are multiple and complex but certainly include a sharp increase in the quality of leadership, better parental engagement and the rising status of teaching as a profession. On this last point, my employer, Teach First, has recruited more than 6,000 top graduates into teaching in disadvantaged communities.

Private schools, unable to compete for talent individually, have recently announced they’re setting up a similar scheme. So my worry about these proposals is not that they will launch a class war but that they could fuel a widespread and inaccurate belief in the innate superiority of private schools when we should be looking to build on success in the state system.

In 2005, when Tony Blair began his attempt to make independent schools’ charitable status conditional on meeting a public benefit test, I was working for the Independent Schools Council. I remember telling heads at the time that they should stop complaining: having the prime minister extol the supposed benefits they could offer the state system was worth millions in free advertising.

Blair’s plan ultimately failed when the courts ruled, in 2011, against the Charity Commission’s definition of “public benefit”, preventing the imposition of sanctions on private schools. But both the current government, through its exhortations to the private sector to become academy sponsors, and Labour through these latest proposals have continued to give the impression that if only private schools could be made available to all, our educational problems would be solved.

Instead, all parties should focus on consolidating recent successes in the state sector and working out how best to spread these improvements across the country.

One way to help achieve this would be to simply end private schools’ tax relief and give the proceeds to the state sector, which is facing cuts much greater than 3% over the next parliament. The money will likely be a lot more use than the advice.

Sam Freedman is director of research, evaluation and impact at Teach First

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