Independent schools and social mobility: no easy answers

Geoff Whitty and Emma Wisby. 

There’s now just under a month for people to give their views on the government’s schools green paper proposals. If the impassioned public debate it has generated is anything to go by, Department for Education officials will have a lot of consultation responses to read. They will also have much thinking to do about how the behaviour of different parts of the education system would most likely change in response to the proposals, and the likely implications of that for achieving the aims behind them, especially Theresa May’s much vaunted commitment to increasing upward social mobility.

In broad terms, what the green paper proposals do is to accept at face value an existing hierarchy of secondary schools with regard to academic attainment: elite independent schools at the top, followed by grammar schools, high performing non-selective schools, and less well performing non-selective schools and a few studio schools with rather different ambitions at the bottom. They reinforce the legitimacy of this hierarchy by, in theory, removing the post code/house price or school fees barrier to the most academically able and engaged children accessing schools at the top end, regardless of background. Linked to this is an apparent intention to create more space ‘at the top’.

A particularly notable feature of the green paper in this regard is its ambition to harness the independent schools sector
for the benefit of a wider group of pupils. One option put forward is for independent schools to provide more fully-funded bursaries, to enable a larger number of disadvantaged pupils to access these schools. This proposal resembles the Assisted Places Scheme (APS) introduced under Margaret Thatcher but discontinued by New Labour, which we predicted last year might be revived by a future majority Conservative government. The green paper itself does not propose state funding of these new bursaries, but the Independent Schools Council (ISC) has been quick to argue for state funding of places in their schools as a logical extension of the government’s grammar school proposals.

On the face of it, this would seem to offer a relatively straightforward way of harnessing the independent sector to support the aims of the green paper – putting aside for a moment the very troubling problem of increasing the extent of ‘creaming off’ in the school system and the problems this creates for the system as a whole. But even on its own terms, the proposal ignores some important evidence from the major 1989 independent evaluation of the APS about how it operated in practice – issues likely to come into play with these latest plans.

The green paper uses the term ‘insufficiently wealthy’ as a criterion for eligibility for a bursary. Most means tested scholarship or bursary schemes, including the APS, use income rather than wealth as the criterion (alongside academic merit). However, the APS evaluation found that an income criterion meant that the majority of beneficiaries did not meet conventional definitions of ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘working class’ families. If working class families are to be the target of the new independent school bursaries as well as the new grammar school policy, then the government and the schools would need to devise eligibility criteria very carefully. Otherwise there is a real risk that the new provision would become monopolised by ‘cash poor’ but ‘social and cultural capital rich’ families. The suggestion that bursaries would be fully funded partly addresses this issue, but further measures would be necessary to make a difference for working class families.

As with universities, there is often a perception among working class families that independent schools are not for them. Furthermore, the small number of unambiguously working class children in the APS were less likely to remain in school beyond 16 and go on to university than pupils of similar ability who entered state maintained grammar or comprehensive schools at 11. And only those few who stayed on at their independent schools beyond 16 gained the benefit of higher A-level grades and entry to more prestigious universities compared to their peers in the maintained sector. Thus, there are barriers other than prior attainment that can prevent disadvantaged families taking up places – and those pupils thriving – in the independent sector or grammar schools (see also the findings of the 2013 Francis and Hutchings report for the Sutton Trust on class differences in parental choice).

The green paper suggests that there should be significantly more such bursaries than the schools currently provide, so the impact of more independent school bursaries on neighbouring schools, including entry to maintained grammar schools, would also need to be carefully considered before deciding on the scope and scale of such provision. It is not clear from the green paper, however, that the government would have any influence over bursary provision, nor on independent schools’ wider behaviour in the context of greater competition from expanded grammar school provision, especially at a time when school fees are becoming increasingly unaffordable to families. London independent day schools are already advertising bursaries widely on the Underground in terms of providing a world class education without school fees.

Sir Tim Brighouse has proposed, in response to the green paper, that the government, through local authorities, should claim a “golden share” in all independent schools with charitable status, giving it the right to nominate five per cent of their entry. He suggests that by careful selection, with the help of state schools, this could allow more genuinely disadvantaged children to benefit and help alter the skewed social mix of independent schools. However, the problem of creaming off the most academically able and enthusiastic pupils from the state sector would remain. And it could also encourage more middle class parents to pay for private education if they saw more academic children from disadvantaged backgrounds deserting the non-selective schools their own children attended. This would pertain especially if those middle class children had not won free places at grammar schools. (There are, of course, cynics who see this as the purpose of the suggestion in the first place.)

Ultimately, though, independent schools and grammar schools face the same conundrum – a pressure to expand or at least diversify their pupil intakes in the face of a shortage of suitably qualified applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds at age 11. In both cases policy effort might therefore be much better directed at improving academic attainment in primary schools.

The risk that the green paper proposals will have ‘unintended consequences’, generating the exact opposite outcomes to those intended (or at least claimed), is high. The government’s response to criticism of the proposals, especially in relation to grammar schools, is that they are trying to create a different kind of system to the one that the existing research evidence relates to. This is an important point, and always one to be mindful of when appealing to the evidence base. But the independent school bursary scheme, particularly if it were to gain the public funding now sought by the ISC, looks suspiciously like the abandoned APS, whose anticipated contribution to a meritocratic ‘ladder of opportunity’ was as elusive as that of current grammar schools. Past research evidence is valuable precisely because it helps us to identify broader principles that apply across time and to a range of contexts, helping us to predict likely behavioural responses. It should not be dismissed so lightly.

Photo: Grand entrance to Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire, by Jonathan Billinger

© Copyright Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Posted in Education policy, Evidence-based policy, Schools, Social sciences and social policy
3 comments on “Independent schools and social mobility: no easy answers
  1. jameswilding says:

    In addition to my work as a school leader, I also assist ISA schools in inspection matters, and I work as an RI for ISI.
    In the two visits I have made this week, either over 90% or all 100% of the children have English as a second language.
    Lazy journalism and ‘ignorant’ politicians seem to assume that everyone is wearing a boater and blazer from the playing fields of the Bullingham Club. My witness of our schools is so very different. In the case of the 1st school, all of the children are UK based citizens, with parents choosing the small school in a suburban house setting (100) because they are assured small classes, individual attention and support around their English development. A substantial majority win entry into state selective grammar schools or scholarships to independent schools. There is no silver spoon in these children’s mouths, simply a very clear family understanding that the child comes first. The school is not full from Reception, but fills as the language interest groups meet and highlight how well the school meets the needs of these children.
    The second school is an outreach school providing full home language education for international families who will be returning back to the home country at the end of the 3 year stay, and their curriculum is in their home language. The school is full boarding.
    My own school has almost 1100 day children, from Nursery to Sixth Form. We exist in an area surrounded by leafy primary schools, grammar schools and excellent comprehensives, so to be of this scale and size seems counter-intuitive. The reality at primary level is that our fees are probably lower than that of state school plus wrap around care for city based dual income parents. We have a network of busses throughout the region that bring children to and fro, unlike public transport that simply does not cover the ground in such a way. Access to all to an intelligent, broadly based non-selective education, in which children can develop way beyond their expectations is a powerful inducement for people to join us and remain.
    None of this is about Assisted Places – the issues for schools such as the three I reference is that if children of less affluent families are to be able to attend our schools, who is to make that judgement? In the case of disabled children, local boroughs will fund children with us – if we are to agree that a lack of money is a disabling access, isn’t the answer to provide AP?

  2. It is with some sadness I read this article.
    I first studied at the Inst of Ed at the start of the 1980’s, and have, unlike many of my peers, remained in teaching. I have taught (and inspected) in what are now known in the media as ‘challenging’ inner city schools, Eton group schools and for the last few years of my career in smaller independent schools.
    The simplistic binary system that is suggested in this article, and sadly evident in articles in the recent magazine, does not exist.
    I concur with the comment above, the hierarchy of problems, injustices, and successes are simply not as well defined by educational sector as is suggested.
    I enjoyed my PGCE year, not least because of the rich variety of educational backgrounds of the students and tutors who were excited about the great career of teaching (in whatever sector) we had ahead.
    I fear that on recent evidence, the inspirational and inclusive start I enjoyed at the Inst of Ed might have disappeared and been replaced by an overly simplistic analysis, dare I say a biased analysis?

    • Emma says:

      Thanks Kevin. The blog reports on research which showed that the socio-economic backgrounds of pupils with an assisted place were not generally particularly disadvantaged – and suggests that the new initiative would need to do better in that respect. We make no suggestion of a straightforward binary divide between the state and independent sectors. If anything, it is the government’s green paper that does that. We were simply commenting on some of the possible implications of the proposals it sets out.

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