Of ratios and results

4th August 1995 at 01:00
It takes someone with a healthy sense of the ridiculous to spot the link between mad cow disease and excessively large classes. Keith Mitchell, Durham's director of education, is such a man (see Letters, page 9). Mr Mitchell is right to suspect that crowded classes constitute at least as big a threat to the national health and wealth as bovine eyeball dissection. But in the absence of any incontrovertible proof, no one will ever induce a Government Minister to say so.

The new breakdown of 1994 GCSE statistics indicating that the gulf between independent and state school achievement has widened (page 5) follows the announcement that pupil-teacher ratios in English and Welsh state schools are the worst for 15 years, but the Government will see no connection between the two sets of data. In any case, there are other ways of interpreting, or misinterpreting, these GCSE statistics which, for once, focus on average pupils and low-achievers rather than the five-plus A-C grades contingent.

First, it is not true that independent schools' average GCSE points totals are rising twice as fast as state schools' (a claim made by one Sunday newspaper). The respective growth rates are actually closer to 10 per cent and 8 per cent. It is also misleading to say that the bottom 15 per cent of independent school pupils obtain nearly four times as many GCSE points as their state school equivalents. In fact, the two low-achieving groups are not remotely equivalent, the independent pupils having much higher prior attainment scores.

There is, however, no denying that the gulf between the independent and state schools' GCSE scores is of oceanic dimensions. That is fairly predictable given that household income indices show that the rich have got richer and the poor, poorer. Unsurprising, too, in view of the private sector's pupil intake and facilities. On average, independent schools spend five times as much per pupil on capital projects as do maintained schools, and invest possibly 50 per cent more in books and equipment. Unimportant though class size apparently is, they have also held their pupil-teacher ratio at 10.7:1, compared with state secondaries' 16.5:1.

None the less, even though public v. private sector comparisons are unfair, neither state schools nor local education authorities should disregard these GCSE figures which provide an interesting new perspective on schools' performance. Some schools may have to ask whether they are still underestimating the potential of lower-attaining pupils and whether too much attention has been focused on borderline C-grade pupils who could enhance their schools' rating in the performance tables. Equally, despite being cash-strapped and constrained by LMS rules, local authorities may have to find new ways to provide more support for the most disadvantaged pupils.

The most profound reassessment, however, needs to be undertaken by the Government. It may be unconcerned about what the former Conservative education minister George Walden describes as the "apartheid" system that provides separate schooling for the rich and poor regardless of aptitude. But it must surely be perturbed by this further indication that so many children are still leaving English and Welsh schools with virtually nothing to show for their 11 years of education.

The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the fight for economic survival that Britain is now engaged in will be won - or lost - in the state school classrooms.

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