Ending the divide

We have some of the best universities in the world and, recognising their critical role in social mobility, we insist that access is determined by merit rather than by means. Yet when it comes to our independent schools, we accept that only those who can afford it should go.

Today the Social Market Foundation publishes new research showing that pupils from independent schools do dramatically better than those who go to state school – earning an average of £194,000 more between the ages of 26 and 42. These huge differences arise in part because these children come from privileged backgrounds anyway. But that’s not the whole story. Take two people of the same ability and parental background at age 11, track them forward, and the pupil who attends independent school is likely to earn substantially more. A significant driver appears to be simply that independent schools typically progress the education of pupils more during their school years than state schools do.

To say this is not to criticise the state sector. There have been improvements through the reform programme begun by Labour under Tony Blair and Lord Adonis and since continued by Michael Gove and David Laws in the Coalition. Standards of teaching and school leadership are better. The improvements in London schools are especially dramatic.

But no matter how much we improve the state system, we cannot ignore the relative advantages of independent schools: in resources, staff to student ratios and the quality of teachers. It’s not for nothing that the OECD has reported that we have the best independent sector in the world. And it shows in pupils’ achievements. As previous work by the Sutton Trust has reported, a student from an independent day school is 55 times more likely to win an Oxbridge place and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than a state school student from a poor household. This is a shocking divide and its impact continues long into adult life.

One response to this has been to soften the borders. A small number of independent schools sponsor academies and free schools. Many more are engaged in partnerships with local state schools on the curriculum, university access, sports and other activities. These are all welcome developments. Yet they barely scratch the surface of what is needed if some of our highest performing schools are to offer ladders of opportunity to all based on their ability.

We need to transform the independent sector, ensuring that successful day schools recruit on merit rather than money, and are opened up to a wider pool of talent. Forty years ago, most of the best independent day schools in this country were open to children of all backgrounds. Today, unless your parents can find £12,500 a year or more after tax, access is by and large denied.

The Sutton Trust have already run a pilot scheme to open up access at The Belvedere, an independent girls’ day school in Liverpool, replacing fees with admission based solely on merit. The pilot was a huge success: the intake reflected the full diversity of the area, exam results were their highest ever, and the school was a happy place to teach and learn.

Around 90 leading independent day schools would back the extension of such an Open Access scheme today, which would benefit more than 30,000 able students, whose parents cannot afford full fees. The roadblock is state funding and there are two main political objections to that.

The first is that the scheme would require selective admissions, which the main parties oppose. However, the Coalition and Labour both agree that we should not abolish the remaining state grammar schools. And, given that selection already exists in the independent sector too, the point of Open Access is simply to democratise it so that all bright students could benefit, not just those with the wealthiest parents.

The second objection is that this is a subsidy for private institutions. While some still harbour the fantasy of one day abolishing all independent schools, many more would draw the line at them getting hold of public funds. And yet we accept that universities – largely autonomous institutions – should obtain public funds, indeed some of the same people who champion the independence of our universities want them to have more public funding not to cut them off from it. We make the same judgement about early years education, allowing parents to take their public subsidy – whether paid in the form of a voucher or the forthcoming tax free childcare scheme – to private nurseries. It seems that throughout the rest of the education system we allow public funding to follow quality but, when it comes to schooling, we cut off those who cannot afford the full fees themselves from some of our very best schools. Open Access would change that, turning our independent schools from bastions of privilege into engines of social mobility.


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