In 2014 Michael Gove, then education secretary, said he hoped his overhaul of the exams and school system would mean that “when you visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee-paying independent”.
But today independent schools are predicting that Mr Gove’s GCSE and A-level reforms will only widen an existing gulf with their state school counterparts.
Pupils in fee-paying schools already achieve significantly better average grades compared to the state sector (see box, right) and now heads say that reformed qualifications will stretch this advantage.
Chris King, headmaster of Leicester Grammar School and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents elite independent schools, said: “It’s quite likely that the best independent schools will pull ahead in their proportion of the top grades”.
The heads say this is because the coursework and modular assessment that they had argued favoured the state sector is now being abolished or significantly scaled back.
Private schools also claim that greater resources will leave them better prepared than state schools to adapt to the reforms. And they believe their pupils will gain a disproportionately large share of the new grade 9s, the highest grades in new tougher GCSEs, which will be harder to achieve than the current A*.
“Because the [grade] scale itself is being stretched out, the performance of top independent schools at the high end will become more apparent,” Mr King says.
Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, said: “We think independent schools will be less disadvantaged than state schools [by the reforms]... We think that because our schools have less bureaucracy to deal with overall, they’re better placed to give staff the resources, time and space to prepare.”
Earlier this year it was claimed that some independent schools could be put out of business by a rapidly improving state sector.
And this week Ralph Lucas, the editor of The Good Schools Guide, who made that claim, played down the idea that reformed exams could curb the rising popularity of state schools among more affluent parents.
“I don’t think short-term changes in statistics would matter,” he said. “I think some of the key things about the improved reputation of state schools has been to do with things like discipline and hours. Exam results are just not the be-all and end-all.”
But TES understands that senior figures in the independent sector say privately that feepaying schools should “not worry too much” about state sector competition. They argue that the attainment gap between the two sectors is now “as wide as it ever has been” and will widen further once GCSE and A-level reforms are fully in place.
New GCSEs in English and maths, designed to be tougher than their predecessors, have been taught since September, with other subjects being phased in over the following two years. They use final linear exams instead of allowing pupils to take separate modules, and will be examined for the first time in 2017 alongside reformed A levels.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the reforms would not necessarily benefit the independent sector. “I wouldn’t say there’s any advantage in terms of preparing students,” he said. “Teachers in the state sector will work hard and will prepare themselves and their students equally [as well as private schools] for the reformed exams.
“We’ve got no evidence about what will happen to results in 2017, so let’s not pre-judge it.”
But Peter Hamilton, headmaster of the independent Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree, Hertfordshire, said: “I think the gap will widen. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, nor should anybody be. I think it will come down quite simply to the question of resourcing.
“Take, for example, maths GCSE. The content has increased, and it’s meant to be more demanding. The bottom line is, you need more teaching time and more teachers. And if you’ve got the resources to put into it, that’s one thing, and if you haven’t, that’s another.”
Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School, a fee-paying school in Surrey, told TES that he had “seen it from all sides”, having previously been the headteacher of a comprehensive school and a grammar school. “I do think this will lead to a widening of the achievement gap, but it’s one contributory factor alongside others such as budget cuts and a recruitment crisis that affect the state sector,” he said.
Mr Fenton also argues that the main factor that will cause fee-charging schools to pull ahead will be the state sector’s lack of resources to prepare for the changes.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Our rigorous new GCSEs and A levels will ensure all pupils leave education with the knowledge and skills they need.
“Every time we have raised the bar, schools and colleges have risen to meet the challenge. We are confident that this is no exception.”
State schools ‘will struggle’
At Ruthin School, an independent school in north Wales, pupils studying for GCSEs and A levels sit exams every Saturday morning.
The school’s principal, Toby Belfield, says that the regular “rigorous” tests have already improved pupils’ attainment. And he expects them to bring extra benefits under the government’s reformed GCSE and A levels, which are to be assessed using final end-of-year exams rather than a series of modules.
“Our students are prepared for these examinations,” Mr Belfield says, adding that he expects the shift to linear assessment to widen the attainment gap between state and private schools.
“At A level, what will happen is that state sixth forms will struggle with the two-year approach where you can’t resit. Independent schools will generally prepare students with a linear approach anyway, so they won’t need to change what they do very much.
“The gap between our achievements [at GCSE and A level] and other schools’ will grow as a result of the reforms – and that’s good for us.”
Mr Belfield predicts that the widening gap between state and independent schools in the wake of the reforms will lead to “political fall-out”. “No one likes to see the independent sector going up and the state sector going down,” he adds.