Britain’s private schools have again entered the public eye, with increasing concern over social mobility and social justice. There have been pressures for reform from several quarters. The most extreme was a September call for their ‘abolition’ from the annual conference of Labour, Britain’s main opposition party.
But whether one’s preference is for abolition, radical reform or no reform at all, confusion continues over what private schools actually do.
The question is: does private schooling in Britain actually improve children’s academic performance, beyond what would happen if they attended state schools, once account is taken of the characteristics of the children who attend them?
Every year, private schools top the A level tables. But they take children mainly from well-off family backgrounds, and many are academically selective. These children would do well anyway.
In fact, many academic studies have found that private schools do generate academic success, even after allowing for the pupils’ backgrounds. Several focus on those at school in the latter part of the 20th century, but since then the schools have increased their fees almost every year above inflation. By 2016, they were devoting upwards of three times the amount of resources per pupil as in state schools.
It is important for all concerned in the debate, as well as prospective private school parents, to know whether private schools are still able to generate an academic advantage in the 21st century, and if so how much of an advantage.
Formal studies have already revealed modest but significant gains at both primary and lower secondary levels, but until now none has looked at the effects at sixth form – the crucial gateway to Britain’s universities. At this upper secondary level, the proportion of private school children rises from 7 per cent to 17 per cent, and the per-pupil resource advantage is at its greatest.
In a new study, we used ‘Next Steps’, a longitudinal study, run by colleagues here at the IOE, of English children born in 1990, who entered sixth form in 2006. They were followed every year through their secondary schooling and again later. Crucially, we were able to control in a detailed way for the children’s family background and income, and their prior achievements at GCSE. We found that, on average, compared to otherwise similar state school pupils:
- those at private school study 27 percent more ‘facilitating’ A-level subjects, (subjects which are known to be favoured by high-status universities).
- they are placed 8 percentage points higher in the A level rankings and 11 percentage points higher in the rankings for ‘facilitating’ A levels.
- they have a 10 percentage point greater chance of entering a university in the Russell Group of ‘elite’ universities – wholly accounted for by their A-level achievements.
- they have a 9 percentage point greater probability of entering any university, which is only partially explained by their A level achievements.
If we put these findings together with those studies looking at earlier stages of education, we can conclude that the modest advantages at every stage build up to a substantial gain over the course of a school career in Britain’s private sector. This conclusion contrasts with most formal studies of private schooling in other countries, which show no or very little effect either way on academic performance. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that other countries’ schools do not have anything like the resource gap between their fee-paying and state sectors. The large resource gap is the most plausible mechanism for understanding how Britain’s private schools achieve their advantages.
Whether these educational advantages are “worth it” is another question; that depends, of course, on the fees which are now as high as they have ever been (fees for day pupils at Westminster are £28,809 this year). Also, there are other benefits, other than the purely academic: the well-funded extra-curricular educational and sporting activities, through which pupils gain cultural and social capital that helps them in later life. And it should be remembered that our findings apply on average. Some pupils will gain more than the estimates imply, while others will gain less, or even do better in state schools.
These findings ought to put to bed the question of private schools’ educational advantage in the UK, in the context of debates about the need for reform, and the possible routes to reform. Both reformers and defenders of the status quo should start from the position that the schools do, on average, confer academic advantage, and debate policies to address the social exclusiveness of access to private schools in that light.
Henderson, M., Anders, J., Green, F. and Henseke, G. (2019) Private Schooling, Subject Choice, Upper Secondary Attainment and Progression to University, Oxford Review of Education.