State schools are as good as private schools, Mr Gove. Here’s the proof

The real advantage of fee-paying institutions lies with the pupils they attract

Share

Two children run a race. They start in the same place, but one of the children has the inside lane, and as they circle the track, that advantage opens up a telling gap. Half way round, the child in the lead picks up a straw hat without breaking stride, and puts it on. He crosses the finishing line far ahead of his opponent. The next day’s sports pages are full of analysis of the contest. The advice to the loser, the columnists opine, is obvious: for the next race, he should be sure to get hold of a boater.

You wouldn’t get away with this shallow analysis in athletics. But in schools, it appears to be indestructible. So we can see from the thrust of Michael Gove’s arguments as he attempts to reconfigure state education. He has agreed in the past that the “sheer scale, the breadth and the depth of private school dominance” are “morally indefensible”. On Monday, he made some suggestions about how to upend it.

The problem, Mr Gove says, is that state schools are not learning enough from their private counterparts. There is a “Berlin Wall” between the two. Here are things he wants to transfer to bring it down: Latin and Greek. Common Entrance.  Choir and cadets and debating. Writing lines. He didn’t mention compulsory straw hats, but it would not be terribly surprising if the idea was floated before the end of the week. “We know England’s private schools are the best independent schools in the world,” Mr Gove said. “Why shouldn’t our state schools be the best state schools in the world?”

The problem with this assumption, that our public schools are far better than state schools and that their traditions are to thank for it, is this: it is demonstrably false. You can begin to get a whiff of this from the argumentative strategies deployed in defence of the idea. Eton is the accepted shorthand for private education, as if the most rarefied private school in the country stands for all 2,600 of them; meanwhile, we symbolise state schools with the unloved Bog Standard Secondary, forgetting the bastions of excellence at the top of the sector that rival Eton on a fraction of the budget.

We see the results that these anomalous private schools get, and in the search for reasons why they do so well, we alight on their most visible distinguishing features: their traditions and methods. In doing so, we miss the real source of their advantage: the pupils they attract.

Archie Bland: Private schools are doing laughably little to justify their charitable status
John Rentoul: John Major slams private school privilege - but what did he do to change the system while he was PM?

This isn’t just a hunch. There is plenty of evidence that backs it up. Private schools seem to do better, but once you strip out the advantages conferred on them by having an intake that is largely made up of well-to-do children who live with their vigorously engaged parents in a house full of books, their advantage disappears. British performance in the PISA tests that compare schools internationally has shown this to be the case. Our domestic measures suggest the same thing. Of the two in five independent schools that are inspected by Ofsted, 74 per cent of them were rated outstanding or good; in the state sector, it was 78 per cent. If you sent the Etonians to Bog Standard Secondary, they would still thrive. If you sent the children from Bog Standard Secondary at Eton, the limits of line-writing would quickly become apparent.

I was amazed when I first read those statistics. But when you think about it, they make sense. We know that a rich child can be 18 months ahead on vocabulary by the age of five; we know that the strongest predictor of success in life is maternal education. And studies show that when affluent parents get over their fears and send their children to state schools, they still do extremely well. The remarkable thing is that the most powerful weapon in Michael Gove’s crusade against the morally indefensible dominance of private schools would be a simple, repeated statement of a simple economic fact: instead of spending an average of £14,000 a year on private education, you can get something just as good for free.

So why do we resist the idea? Why isn’t Mr Gove shouting this from the rooftops? Perhaps because the implications are, in one sense, even more depressing: it is much easier to “fix” state schools than to fix a society where a child’s life chances are laid out when he is still a toddler. Perhaps, too, because it is uncomfortable to note that if private school parents aren’t paying for a better education, they are paying for something rather more insidious: the connections, the social capital, the place of refuge from the state school kids who they groundlessly fear could contaminate their dear ones. And perhaps, above all, because it leads to the following, politically nightmarish conclusion: if Mr Gove really wants to transfer the things that make private schools so “good” into the state sector, he shouldn’t be looking at activities, at punishments, at exams. He should be looking at the children.

 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence