Michael Gove recently said that he wants state schools to do more of the things that private schools do. What struck me most about the ensuing hoo-hah was the idea that state schools might be able to provide the advantages of a private education if only the government provided more money. In most cases, parents send their children to a private school as a means of passing on privilege to their children rather than as a way of rescuing their children from the horrors of a state school. Because privilege can only exist if some people don’t have it, state schools can’t provide the same benefits to pupils as private schools. Politicians may see education as promoting social mobility, but it is also used by parents to try to make sure that their children get the advantages they need over other children to get on in life.
One argument (there are many) for how private schools help better-off families secure advantages for their children can be sketched as follows.
Firstly, children from private schools do achieve significantly better results than those from state schools at A level. The figure below (using data from the Department of Education) shows the proportion of A-levels awarded to pupils at private and state schools in 2013 that were in different grades. The difference in achievement of children at private and at state schools is clearly significant with around 50 percent of the grades awarded to pupils at private schools in the A* or A category in comparison to less than 25 percent for pupils at state schools. One consequence of the better A-level grades of children from private schools is that they are more likely to get into a higher status university (e.g. Oxford or Cambridge) than children from state schools. Figures from HESA show that in 2011 around 42 percent of students admitted to Cambridge and Oxford had been to a private school, while only around 12 percent of all children admitted to university in England had been to private schools.
Secondly, although private schools outperform state schools in terms of A-level results, students who have been to a private school are less likely to get a good degree when compared to those from state schools with the same entrance qualifications. On average, a student from a state school with ABB grades at A-level can be expected to get the same degree as a student from a private school with AAA grades at A level (HEFCE 2003). The reason that students from state schools outperform those from private schools at university is not well-established. The most reliable evidence suggests, however, that students from private schools benefit from teaching effects which increase their A-level grades in comparison to students from state schools but these then wash-out during university. The best evidence for teaching effects (and not student ability) as the cause of the better A-level grades at private schools comes from Ogg et. al. (British Educational Research Journal 2009) which used the results of an aptitude test administered to students who applied for admission to Oxford in 2002. The study shows that, on the basis of the aptitude test, students from private schools achieved the level of degree expected but, on the basis of A-level grades, they underperformed relative to students from state schools. If we assume that the aptitude test provides a true measure of student’s ability, then the better A-level grades of students from private schools can be interpreted as being due to the temporary influence of teaching conditions in private schools.
Thirdly, studies such as Naylor et al. (Bulletin of Economic Research 2002) have shown that the after leaving university graduates who have been to a private school get paid significantly more in comparison to graduates from state schools. I’m not aware of studies which show why students from private schools get better jobs than those who went to state schools. It seems likely to be due largely to social factors, however, such as the status of the school and university attended and other people’s perceptions of the abilities of students from different backgrounds. State schools can’t deliver the same benefits as private schools because the benefits of private schools run through social factors and not through education.
I’m not complaining that parents try to help their children get ahead in life. Whether it is acceptable for parents to try to give their children an unfair advantage over other children is something that it would be useful to have a public debate about, however, particularly given politicians current passion for social mobility. The debate would be improved if we could recognise that private schools do give some children unfair advantages over others, rather than allowing them to fulfill what seems to be their natural potential.