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Academic gap between independent and state primaries narrows as fees rise

Rising fees have not produced a greater private-school advantage, study finds

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Rising fees have not produced a greater private-school advantage, study finds

The academic gap between pupils in independent primary schools and pupils in state primary schools has narrowed – yet the fees for prep schools have escalated, new research suggests.

Attending a private primary school still provides an “early advantage for children over their similarly able peers” in UK state primary schools – even when a wide range of family and individual characteristics are taken into account, according to a new study from UCL Institute of Education.

But parents are now paying more for prep schools than in the 1970s – and their children have a smaller academic lead over pupils in state primary schools than three decades ago.

The study, which looked at three generations of children living in the UK, said: “The fact that increasing school fees have not produced an increased private-school advantage is surprising.

“We can speculate that increased performance pressures on state primary schools may have gone some way to counterbalance the increased resources enjoyed by the private sector.”

'Very notable gap'

The research, which used data from three birth cohorts (1958, 1970 and 2000-2001), found the benefit of attending a prep school for academic progress is “not commensurate with the associated costs”.

It concludes: “Parents of the youngest cohort are paying (proportionately) the most, but the benefits were not greater than for the 1970 cohort.”

Pupils in private primary schools in the 1970s had an 8- to 10-point advantage, whereas children in prep schools in the 2000s only had a 5-point advantage, the study finds.

The average fees for sending a child to a private primary school in 2015 were around £12,000 a year, the report says, whereas the annual average government funding per pupil in a state primary school was £4,308.

The report adds: "Private schools in Britain, unlike their international counterparts, receive no state funding, with the exception of some tax relief, but the cost of attending a private school is increasingly high and the gap in school resources between private and state schools very, very notable.

"One may hypothesise that the increased fees and resources, and generally more benign environment provided by prep schools in more recent years, should have led to better results and a greater comparative advantage over state schools for the more recent cohorts."

Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said: "Affordability is of course a concern for schools and they work hard to remain competitive whilst facing pressures on salaries, pensions and maintenance costs.

"Mindful of the struggles hard-working families face in paying school fees, many schools have extended bursary provision to lower income families.”

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