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.
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.
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