CASE in the media

The 7% problem, New Statesman 5-11/7/19

Faced with the charge that UK private schools make a major contribution to the preservation of inherited wealth and privilege, Andrew Halls, the Headmaster of King's College School, tries to create a smokescreen by attacking the shortcomings of state schooling.  It perhaps has not occurred to him that a major reason for the lack of resources and constant political interference that bedevil state schools is that the children of the rich and powerful do not attend them or that the disappearance of competitive games, modern languages and creative arts from state schools of which he complains has been largely due to education policies made by people who went to schools like his - most notoriously the 1988 Education Reform Act, introduced by Kenneth Baker (St Paul's and Magdalen).  

As for British children being overweight, unhappy and bullied, I am not aware of any evidence that these problems are significantly less common in private than in state schools.  In any case, who has been running the country during the lifetime of the current generation of children and where did these people go to school?

It is not "patronising" to recognise that very able children from under-resourced schools and impoverished families may find their ability not fully reflected in their examination grades and it is perfectly reasonable for universities to take this into account when assessing a student's potential.  Universities already know that, among students with similar A-level grades, it is the state educated who are likely to obtain the best degrees and are understandably anxious not to mistake superficial polish for genuine erudition.

Finally, if Andrew Halls has any evidence that today's young people are "less literate and numerate than their grandparents", he really ought to quote it.  As a grandparent of five children aged from 3 to 19, I certainly haven't noticed this.  On the other hand, 80% of my own generation failed the 11+ and mostly went to secondary modern schools, whence they left at 15 with no qualifications and, very often, a wish to have nothing whatsoever to do with education ever again.  I think it unlikely, to say the least, that, as a generation, we are better educated than our grandchildren.

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

Private schools ripe for reform, The Observer 7/7/19

In an otherwise excellent article, Sonia Sodha suggests that banning private schools from charging fees may be "deemed impossible" (Comment and Analysis, June 30th).  However, as the example of Finland shows, determined political action based upon a coherent long term vision is not only extremely possible but is the key to developing an education system that is both equitable and high-performing.  The inherent inequity and social divisiveness of the current system will not be be seriously reduced by such measures as widening access to elite universities because the power of the most prestigious schools is not primarily educational but socio-economic: when it comes to having easy access to elite positions in society, going to Eton is vastly more important than going to Oxford.  Nor will financial measures such as removing tax advantages have any serious impact: parents who can afford more than £40,000  on basic fees alone will hardly notice the increase in costs.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to radical reform is the Labour Party, whose record since 1945 in confronting the powerful interests vested in the system can only be described as one of abject cowardice.  For all Corbyn's ranting about social justice, there is no sign whatsoever of this changing.  

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

Selective education and social mobility, The Guardian 2/7/19

Tony Pitman’s preference for the German selective over the Finnish comprehensive model (Letters, 1 July) is based on flimsy reasoning and scant empirical evidence. The reason the Finnish model is so attractive is that it has plainly worked, as every new OECD study of global education systems shows. Incidentally, the same studies show that selective systems of the kind he favours are far less effective in terms of resultant economic productivity than inclusive ones.

There is also no evidence that having more grammar schools would diminish the big attractions of the private sector, which are its exclusivity and social networking opportunities. Students from comprehensives outperform those from both grammar and private schools at university degree level, but go on to fewer of the top jobs than their privately educated counterparts.

In the UK, who your parents are and where you went to school are still the main determinants of social mobility. Either we do something radical to change this, or we accept it and shut up about believing in mobility. Talking about bringing back grammar schools is an irrelevant distraction.

Chris Dunne, London and Campaign for State Education

Mr Pitman is mistaken in his assertion that private schools have “absorbed the demand that grammar schools used to fulfil”. In 1966, 7.1% of UK children were being privately educated, compared with the current 7%. If foreign children are excluded, the current figure drops to 6.5%, suggesting that demand for private schooling was, if anything, higher during the heyday of the postwar selective system.

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

Tackling the damage done to the UK by private schools, The Guardian 20/3/19

John Harris suggests that obliging elite universities to admit no more than 7% of their students from private schools would obviate the need to abolish these socially and culturally damaging institutions (Britain's crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools - March 18th).  This argument assumes that the ability of the most prestigious of these schools to promote their pupils into elite positions in society is based upon the quality of the education they offer when, in fact, their power is essentially social and derives from the kind of pupils who go there in the first place.  A landmark research project, carried out by Reeves and Friedman at the LSE in 2017, showed quite conclusively that pupils attending one of the nine original "public" schools handed over to the rich by the Clarendon Commission of 1861 are overwhelmingly more likely to join the ruling elite than pupils of other schools, whether private or state, quite regardless of their academic achievements.  The quality of education offered by these schools is completely beside the point.

Also, the 7% who attend private schools account for around 30% of A-level grades, chiefly because most private schools are academically selective, so any ceiling set upon the numbers admitted to elite universities from private schools should be set at 30% rather than 7%.  Many Oxbridge colleges already admit 70% or more of their students from state schools and it is high time that all of them were required to do so but Harris is naive if he thinks that this would seriously challenge the power of our ruling elite.

The most effective means to tackle the problem is to follow the example of the Finns and make it illegal for any school to charge fees.  Such a policy could see the best private schools incorporated into the state system, while schools which offer little beyond straw boaters and nicely piped blazers would just disappear.

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

UK public pays high price for private schools, The Guardian 15/2/19

In putting "another point of view" about private schooling, Doug Clark perpetrates a number of common fallacies (letters, February 12th).  Firstly, it is ridiculously inappropriate to compare "luxury homes, cars, exotic holidays" with the fees for private schools.  Good education is not a luxury but an essential provision which needs to be equally available to all children if we are ever to have a properly functioning society.  Parents are not to be blamed for seeking the best for their children but the private school system encourages the wealthiest to do this at the expense of the great majority.  For example, 14% of the teaching force, trained mainly at public expense, is currently employed in schools which teach 6.5% of the nation's children.    

Secondly, the fact that private schools meet the criteria required for charitable status is merely a reminder that these criteria are quite ridiculously inadequate.  The charitable status enjoyed by private schools represents a subsidy to the wealthiest from the great majority of taxpayers, whose own schools are poorly resourced.  

Thirdly, the effects of the "stellar" teaching identified by Mr Clark as a feature of private schooling do not seem to last beyond childhood.  Repeated research has established that, among university students with similar grades at A-level or its equivalent, the privately schooled are the least likely to obtain the best degrees.  As for "parental encouragement and studious atmosphere", these are not difficult to ensure when those who do not conform can simply be shown the door.

Finally, Mr Clark might reflect upon the fact that the products of these schools have formed Britain's ruling elite since the middle of the 19th century.  After 150 years of national decline, does he think they have done well?  

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

Fighting for fair funding for schools,  The Hitchin Comet  26/7/18

My commitment to local lobbying for schools began with the inspirational Caroline Benn’s Campaign for Comprehensive Education.  I went on to join the movement to stop corporal punishment in Leicester schools (including the one where I was assistant principal).  But In the last eight years I began to find the energy and fun missing from local lobbying. Central government was draining local resources dry and for me lobbying local council meetings became as edifying as watching ferrets sleep in a sack.

This feeling of local powerlessness was halted by the recent surge in support for local parent action groups. 1300 have joined Hitchin Parents Against School Cuts in less than a month. In concert with HPASC the leader of the small Labour group of Hertfordshire county councillors persuaded councillors to vote unanimously to support the Hertfordshire headteachers’ campaign against school cuts.  

The controlling group of Conservative councillors now advocate lobbying Hertfordshire MPs (who at present support the education policies of this Conservative government).  With another unanimous council vote the Conservative councillors of the District Council agreed to follow.  An astonishingly swift and neat conclusion to the first round in our local lobbying campaign for fair funding in schools.

The non-party-political Campaign for State Education view supports the Hitchin heads:

The Government has depleted public assets and wasted a great deal of money.  The Public Accounts Committee has noted that Government policy has transferred land and buildings from the public realm to MATs and Free Schools.  Opening 422 Free Schools during the past seven years has cost about £3.6 billion with an estimated £900 million going to lawyers.”  

Good that our councillors support our headteachers.  I ask all councillors to look again at what their headteachers are saying:

The government seems to continue to squander millions of pounds on education where it suits them so they do not have the money to fund education fairly and reasonably.”

The fight for fair funding continues

Peter Thomson, Vice Chair Campaign for State Education

Technical and vocational education, The Guardian 20/6/18

Chiding Fiona Millar for her pessimism about the new T-levels, Anne Milton MP, Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships, assures us that "these exciting new qualifications...are here to stay" (letters, June 16th).  She bases her optimism upon two factors: the care taken with the design of T-levels and the fact that they will be part of a "holistic" approach to technical education which will include the establishment of institutes of technology "that will offer ... technical training to degree standard".

Leaving aside that some of this looks remarkably like a case of "back to the future", the Minister completely ignores the underlying reason for the failure of every single government attempt since 1945 to provide high quality technical and vocational education: namely, the historical role of academic qualifications in reinforcing social class hierarchy.  This became quite explicit in 2004, when the government rejected wholesale the excellent Tomlinson Report, because its recommendations would have given equal status in the Sixth Form to both academic and vocational studies by incorporating both into the same school-leaver's diploma.

As Fiona Millar points out in the article to which Ms Milton takes exception, vocational education in the UK has always been seen as essentially for "other people's children".  T-levels, however well designed, won't change this.

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

Oxbridge: bucking the trend, or hogging the limelight? The Guardian 5/6/18

Our schools are facing unprecedented financial difficulties and many are in danger of becoming insolvent; the government cannot recruit enough teachers and those already recruited are leaving in droves; rates of mental illness among schoolchildren are soaring, yet The Guardian has devoted the bulk of over a week's education coverage to criticisms of Oxford and Cambridge.  Apparently these two universities are wealthy (gosh, who knew?), don't admit enough students from deprived and/or ethnic minority backgrounds (quelle surprise!) and do admit some students who behave very badly.

There is indeed room for improvement in our elite universities but, compared with the disaster engulfing our schools, this is a trivial issue.  Please recover your sense of perspective!

Michael Pyke, Campaign for State Education

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