The researchers looked at the GCSE results of 1,900 pupils, worked out predicted A-level scores and compared them with actual A-level scores. Their findings appeared to back the hunch of the thousands of parents who swap pupils from one sector to another at the age of 16. Independent school headteachers argued that their type of schooling was most valuable up to GCSE: their pupils did so well at 16 that it was difficult for them to improve after that.
This July, however, the Department for Education published figures showing that independent schools appeared to be more successful between GCSE and A-level with pupils of all abilities than both comprehensive and grammar schools. Pupils' points at GCSE (allowing seven for an A, six for a B, etc) were compared with points at A-level. Only for the most able pupils did the state schools match the independents.
Neither set of figures, experts believe, tells the full story. The Audit Commission's figures may be flawed because they are based on a much smaller sample. Equally, according to Harvey Goldstein of London's Institute of Education, the department's figures may exaggerate the advantage of private schools because they do not take into account schools' exam entry policies.
His research into the comparative performance of schools has found some evidence of this. 'Some independent schools may not enter their pupils for a lot of GCSEs if they are going on to A-level.'
Since the scoring system used by the department allocates points for each exam, these pupils will earn fewer points at GCSE than they are capable of achieving.
John Gray, of Homerton College, Cambridge, one of those responsible for the Audit Commission research, is uncertain why the department's figures appear to contradict his own, but believes that the gap between private and state schools may have increased during the last five years so that the former now enjoy a small academic advantage.
It would be surprising if they did not. Pupils at private schools are a select group whose parents are sufficiently committed to education to pay for it.
Dr Gray suggests that the recession may have widened the gap in motivation between state and independent school sixth-formers, since state schools have had to cope with an increasing number of less motivated 16-year-olds. Five years ago, pupils with low GCSE scores who stayed on after 16 often did so for positive reasons. Now they may be avoiding the dole queue.
Money must also have at least some influence on exam results, despite Government assertions that additional resources are not an important factor in raising standards. On average, independent schools spend over two-thirds more on each pupil than their state secondary counterparts. Yet the success with which some non-selective schools have competed with their independent rivals in league tables of exam results shows that paying fees does not in itself ensure high-quality education.
For parents, there are no easy answers. There is no evidence yet comparing the performance of state and independent schools between the critical ages of 11 and 16. Even if there were, it would be of limited use to the consumer. As Professor Peter Mortimore, director of the Institute of Education in London, points out, while some pupils will flourish in a school where most of their classmates are well motivated, others will fail because they feel outclassed.
Whatever national studies show, there is no guarantee that an individual local private school is better than the local comprehensive. Recent research has revealed that the quality of a state school can make a dramatic difference to a pupil's performance at GCSE. No similiar findings exist for private schools but government inspectors say the difference between the best and worst private schools is far greater than the difference between the best and worst state schools. The Winchesters and Westminsters are probably in a class of their own. So, too, are the big day schools drawing pupils from a wide area, such as Manchester Grammar School, and King Edward's, Birmingham, described by inspectors this week as excellent. But a survey of 1,000 state and independent schools' A-level results by the Financial Times two years ago suggested that once the top 50 schools have been taken out, the best of state education is easily a match for the independent sector: in Essex and Northumberland, for instance, the top school was in the state sector.
Parents need to look critically at all their local schools. Some will want to buy private education for social reasons, but, in some areas at least, it is folly to pay for it on academic grounds.
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