Fraser Nelson

Closing the gap between state and independent education

Closing the gap between state and independent education
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I do hope that Oxford will finally be free from government claims of snobbery soon. We learn today that the proportion of state school pupils it admits has fallen from 55.4 percent to 53.9 percent - but, as the university says, this is in line with the (appallingly low) proportion of state school pupils achieving three As. The problem lies with the schools, not the universities, and it helps no one to pretend otherwise.

Here's one figure that you won't read in the ongoing "Oxford snobbery" story: in 1969, only 38 per cent of Oxford's places went to privately-educated children. Why? Because the private schools in those days were not places of educational excellence, but of social preference. The decline of state education, relative to private, is the problem here. Chris Patten put it well in his statement yesterday:

"I would always strongly resist the suggestion that at a university like Oxford – not that there are many – we should abandon a meritocratic test imaginatively applied in favour of social engineering. That would help neither the young people involved nor the quality of the institution."

Now, Britain has one of the biggest gaps in the world between private and state education. The below chart taken from PISA (here, Table 5.4) shows the horrific picture:

This is at once appalling and encouraging. Appalling because it really does make a difference if you are state or privately educated. That this gap should have widened to South American levels is simply heartbreaking, and should disgrace any civilised country. But the heartening aspect is that Britain's independent schools are the very best in the world. The gap is so wide not because our state schools are that much worse than other countries, but because our private schools are so much better. Educational excellence exists in spades in Britain: we have the solution.

All we need now is to expand this success story, so council house kids can receive an independent education. And this is precisely what Michael Gove plans in his "free school" proposal. Sweden didn't really have any history of private school excellence - Britain does. That means that, if these schools are allowed to expand as profit-seeking companies, education in Britain could be transformed. We have the good stuff. We just need it to expand. The profit motive, if Gove properly allows it in the schools business, is the surest guarantee that the excellence of Britain's independent schools will genuinely be available to all.

The 1965 Oxford stat is from the Andrew Adonis/Stephen Pollard book A Class Act. A quote from that book:

"In the 1960s the state grammar schools and quasi-state direct-grant schools were intact and together easily outclassed the indepenent sector in terms of academic output ... yet the next decade saw these meritocratic pillars of the state school system collapse ... The tragic irony is that for all good intentions, the destruction of the grammar schools - in the name of equality of opportunity - only had the effect of reinforcing class divisions."