David Cameron takes a pop at what he describes as failing middle class schools in a piece in today’s Daily Telegraph. As ever with Cameron, it’s short on evidence, long on prejudice – has there ever been a Government which is less concerned about backing its assertions with hard facts? – and it’s always amusing to see the Tories’ implicit assumption that when a child from Hackney outperforms one from the Shires in exams, the natural order is under threat and the balance needs to be redressed. But the piece raised some interesting questions about efficiency and outcomes in schools.
The obvious one is what schools are for. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Cameron publicly seems to regard the purpose of schools as purely economically instrumental – about producing a qualified, disciplined cadre of workers and consumers (and the comments about the shires bring irresistibly to mind Ivan Illich’s comment that formal education is about rationalising the head start as achievement). It’s a truism that one’s view of education really encapsulates one’s view of life, and Cameron’s is clearly based on economics. But in that he’s hardly alone. Hence the purpose of schools is qualifications, qualifications, qualifications – the certified abilities to do certain things, while other activities take second or third place. (It’s interesting to see the obsession with school sports in that context).
But even if you accept the premise that exam results are what it is all about, where are these failing schools? Where are the drifting schools?
I’d suggest you need to take a good hard look at the private sector.
Consider the facts. Unlike state secondaries, providing education at around £5,000 per pupil per year, private schools are awash with money. Fees are likely to be more than twice that, and they enjoy generous tax breaks amounting to around £88m per year, according to the Education Review Group. So what do parents (and taxpayers who are providing that generous subsidy) get for that money? Not a huge amount in some cases – for example here in Brighton, even on that traditional performance of Oxbridge places and A-level results, our sixth-form colleges are performing as well as private schools. Much of the money of course goes into the sort of character-building activities that our political masters regard as luxuries in the state sector – music, arts, trips and so on. And it’s obvious that state schools in affluent areas like Brighton start with a big head start over their colleagues in poorer areas – but then private schools are highly selective; they cherry pick the exam fodder and can quietly kick out those who won’t make the grade.
And what about the public benefit from that subsidy. Again, the Education Review Group’s work is worth reading. As I’ve blogged before, it concludes that private education remains socially divisive;
- private schools cream off able pupils and teachers from state provision, having a disproportionate effect on it;
- importantly, that fees are increasing much faster than inflation and in particular average pay, exacerbating their exclusiveness;
- a reason for this is that many of the activities at those schools are “gold plated” like running beagling packs and golf courses, demonstrating that education is not their sole function and that they cannot claim simply to be covering the cost of education in those fees
- the costs of providing bursaries is small, and their impact is detrimental to the education system as a whole
In other words, that subsidy is supporting activities that are actually damaging to the common good.
So, private schools are expensive, awash with public money, are producing disbenefits, and, taking into account their ability to pick and choose their pupils, are, even on the terms within which Tories want to conduct the debate, not necessarily achieving results that are any better than many of their state competitors. If Cameron was serious about educational efficiency, he might do well to start with Britain’s complacent private schools.