Fraser Nelson

Why are private schools so touchy about state schools’ success?

Why are private schools so touchy about state schools' success?
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The success of school reform in Britain seem to be worrying the private schools’ spokesmen. They’ve taken the unusual step of releasing a statement in response to my Daily Telegraph column yesterday, where I show that the top state schools outperform top private schools in A-Level league tables. I’m not sure why they’re so upset; I didn’t have a word of criticism for private schools. I think their success is admirable. I just argued that there is, now, just as much excellence in the state sector - and I produced data to back this up. Barnaby Lenon, chairman, Independent Schools Council, didn’t seem to that one bit. He issued a statement with the catchy headline:-

"ISC response to claims based on DfE research by Fraser Nelson, suggesting that state schools now perform better than independent schools in exam league tables."

And he had this to say:-

“This year Independent Schools Council schools, which are 85pc of independent schools, achieved double the proportion of A*and A grades at GCSE and A-level compared to state schools."

Herr, he's comparing 480 private schools to thousands of state schools. But what about comparing the top 480 state schools to the top 480 primary schools? You’d find state schools do best, with 888 A-Level points per pupil, vs 855 points. The below interactive graphic lets you compare the top 50, top 350 and so on.

In a rather snooty article, the Guardian asks if I have cooked the figures then presents its own. Which find...

no statistically significant gap between the 500 state and independent schools.

Its implication: no story. I disagree. You can bet that there's a statistically significant gap in resources between state and private. In my article, I quoted the figures - readers can see that the two are close. Where I differ from the Guardian that I find that remarkable. For their own reasons, both the ISC and the Guardian like the idea of private schools being in a league of their own. Both seem to dislike my productions data showing this to be untrue. Anyway Mr Lenon continues:

“It is clearly unfair to compare every independent school in the country that takes A-levels, a total of about 500, with the very best 500 state schools taken from the top of a list of several thousand.”

Why is it unfair? Private schools purport to be the best; that’s why they charge so much in fees. Why should they object to being compared against the best that the state has to offer? Isn’t that precisely the competition that they’re facing? Might it be that Mr Lenon, a former head of Harrow, doesn’t much like the idea of this competition and is having trouble adjusting to the era where most independent schools are Academies, operating in the state sector? His final comment contests the premise of my column:-

“Any parent comparing the independent and state school league tables can see that the top 100 places are dominated by independent schools.”

I’m not sure if Mr Lenon has seen the league table of top 100 schools arranged by A-Level points per pupil. Private schools do dominate - the bottom half and make up 45 of that top 100. It’s funny: private schools don’t seem to mind being attacked by the left for hoarding excellence and monopolising the best education. Being demonised in that way is good PR. But the idea of them being put in the shade by the best state schools is something that seems to rankle. I'd advise them to be less touchy. They should welcome the age of school competition - as the Adonis/Gove agenda accelerates, there will be far more of it, far more stories of state schools (even former sink schools) overtaking private schools. And Britain will become a stronger, fairer society as a result.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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