This week a report from the Sutton Trust crossed my desk. Alarmingly, it told me that 65 per cent of serving judges are privately educated, along with 44 per cent of newspaper columnists. I’m concerned that many parents will read this as a reason to start saving up for the fees to pay for private school – but I’m here to tell them they should save their money.
When many of us were young the glaring disparities in our education system meant that parents were often faced with some stark choices: scrape together the money for fees or else accept that the state alternative might not be as good.
But times have changed. I read recently about prep schools facing a “slow and gentle goodnight” because state primaries are now so good, with 87 per cent of them rated good or outstanding.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think reports of the death of private education are probably exaggerations – but the truth is that the gap between the two sectors has never been smaller. More and more parents are beginning to wonder whether sending their children to private school is necessary when standards in the state sector are rising.
From my point of view, this is a nice problem to have. It points towards a bigger and brighter phenomenon. The driving philosophy behind the reforms we’ve been making over the past nine years has been to make sure all children have access to a top-quality education that’s right for them and helps them realise their potential – without having to pay extra for it.
Across the state sector there are so many shining examples of schools that rival prestigious private schools. Look at Brampton Manor Academy in east London where more than 100 pupils got straight As or A*s in their A-levels last year and 20 students – all from black or minority ethnic backgrounds – went to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Exeter Mathematics School and King’s College London Mathematics School are both state funded but offer the kind of specialist education that would once have been out of reach for so many people. Their successes are tangible with both seeing incredible results. Last year, 99 per cent of students at King’s achieved an A or A* in A-level maths.
Not long ago that sort of success was the preserve of Eton and its ilk but now this sort of excellence and ambition is commonplace and the result is that the playing field is levelling with the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers narrowing.
This progress didn’t happen by accident. Eighty-five per cent of state-funded schools are now rated good or outstanding – compared to 68 per cent in 2010. This has been driven by a range of reforms, focused on strengthening education from the bottom up. Phonics is helping early literacy, more pupils leave primary school meeting the expected standards in maths and English, reformed GCSEs make sure 16-year-olds have the knowledge parents expect.
But it goes beyond that. Academies and free schools, where over 50 per cent of state educated pupils are now being taught, have greater autonomy and freedom than they’ve ever had to create the kind of educational environments that parents in their communities want.
This often means they have an ethos and vision that was previously the preserve of the private sector. This might be seen in a code of behaviour, for example, or their aspirations for academic attainment, or their encouragement of extra-curricular activity and the development of personal qualities like resilience, respect and loyalty.
For too long professions like law, politics and journalism have been dominated by independently schooled people. By making sure that our state schools offer a comparable education to private schools we will drive down these inequalities.
We’re also making sure that the links between the private and state sectors are better than ever. We’ve set up a partnerships programme that allows state schools, private schools and universities to share their expertise and resources. It is only right that those that have superb facilities are encouraged to share them with others who are not so well provisioned.
All this means that standards of state and private sectors are closer than they have ever been. There will always be those parents who will choose a private school over a state one and I don’t think these schools are in any danger of extinction, but all the same I am very happy to celebrate the levelling of the playing fields.
Nick Gibb is schools minister and Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies