The received wisdom is that children educated in private schools get to university because they come from wealthy backgrounds, are pushed hard by their parents and are hot-housed for exams.
But a leading figure in the independent schools sector has claimed that the reasons for the success of private schools are “more complex” than simple socio-economic factors – and that state schools could learn a lot from their private peers.
John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said that in terms of driving up attainment and widening access to university, independent schools tend to excel.
Nobody, he argued, has ever actually investigated exactly how independent schools got 88 per cent of their pupils into university last year, compared with just 40 per cent of pupils from state schools.
Affluence is no guarantee of academic success, he said, adding that the social mix in independent schools is wider than ever before. More than 25 per cent of pupils who attend independent school are in receipt of financial assistance, most of which is meanstested, Mr Edward said.
Earlier this month, Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, the well-known private school in East Sussex, called for a “royal commission” to be set up to investigate the failures of the state school system. Independent schools should be at the forefront of the campaign for the commission, he said.
Mr Edward said: “People argue that it’s pushy parents, it’s middle-class professional parents, it’s hot-housing them over the last three years, it’s exam training, it’s interview technique, it’s personal statement training. Nobody ever asks the question: does taking them in at 3 and 5 and keeping them, in most cases, to 18 – quite often in the same school – make a difference? So there’s no great traumatic jump or transition [for students between primary and secondary education].”
As well as smoothing transitions, independent schools are good at building strong relationships with parents and former pupils, and catering for the individual child, he said.
Research has shown that engaging parents in their child’s education is key to success in school. An education charity that wants to see a thriving alumni community in every school – including state institutions – has said that former pupils have the ability to offer invaluable support, from mentoring to fundraising (see box, above).
The teaching unions, meanwhile, have long argued for smaller class sizes in state schools so that children can receive more individual attention – an aspect of education that parents expect as a matter of course in private schools.
Mr Edward also claimed that people were wrong to believe that pupils in private schools do not have as many issues as state-school students. “The idea that well-off kids don’t have eating disorders or any of the other issues that other people might have – self-harming, whatever it might be – is crazy. But it’s maybe true that in a school that focuses on individual learning, there might be more awareness of the individual stress and strain people are under,” he said.
But in response to Mr Edward’s comments, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that the link between affluence and an individual’s ability to make the most of school was “irrefutable”. This is why high-performing state schools are generally found in affluent areas, he added.
However, all schools can learn from each other, he said, and added that coming from an affluent background did not necessarily give any one child a guarantee of academic success.
Mr Flanagan continued: “Irrespective of your background, you still need schools delivering high-quality educational experiences. The features that John has identified, those happen to be the features of an effective school, and they are not unique to the private sector. But I would never argue that schools can’t learn from one another, irrespective of their organisational basis.”
‘Former pupils are an inspiration’
Education charity Future First is on a mission to build a thriving, engaged alumni community in state schools to mirror that in many private schools.
The charity believes that former pupils can offer invaluable support in a range of ways, for example as career and educational role models, mentors, work experience providers or even fundraisers or donors.
St Andrew’s Secondary in Glasgow became the first state school in Scotland to sign up to the Future First scheme last year and it remains the only Scottish school on its books. However, across the UK, more than 400 state schools and colleges are registered with the charity to set up “old-school tie networks”, enabling them to harness the talents of ex-students.
Gerry Lyons, headteacher of St Andrew’s, said: “It’s great for young people to learn about what their predecessors at the school have achieved and be inspired by that. Listening to what they have to say will help pupils make the right choices when looking at their career options.
“The programme highlights that you can achieve great things coming from this school; that’s a strong message for young people to hear.”