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State schools improving as private schools fall shock horror

Posted on 27 August 2010 | 12:08pm

I wasn’t going to bother returning to the issue of school exam results, but having got under the skin of a few private-education-defenders yesterday, I have changed my mind. Internet democracy in action.

The skin penetration came when I retweeted a piece by Henry Stewart, chair of governors at Stoke Newington School, on the excellent website, The Truth About Our Schools, pointing out that State schools were gaining on private schools in both GCSEs and A-Levels.

The fabulously intelligent (#sarcasm) @SimonMagus responded by saying on twitter ‘of course they are you idiot – the private sector can’t improve as all their pupils get top grades.’ But had Mr Magus, or Mr Simon, or Mr@, whatever his name is, broken the habit of a lifetime and allowed the facts in Mr Stewart’s piece to break through some of the prejudice that private education fanatics tend to display, he would have got the point – that despite all the phenomenal advantages enjoyed by the private sector, their results were down, and the State sector’s were up. 

That this was not remotely reflected in any of the media coverage may have something to do with the fact that virtually every national editor and senior commentator in the British media uses the private sector for their little Johnnies and Gemimas, which may explain why so many of them feel they have to present private school success as the result of their wise choices, and any such success in the State sector as ‘dumbing down.’

In the hope that Mr@ or Mr Simon or Mr Magus, or all three of them, bother to read the facts this time, here they are – in comprehensives the proportion of GCSE grades being an A or A* rose by 0.9 % and those achieving C or better rose by2.2%. In private schools the pass rates in both categories fell. Private school students of course still get more A grades. But back in 2002 they were 3.9 times as likely to get an A grade at GCSE as a student at a comprehensive. Now they are just 2.9 times as likely. The state sector achieved 71% of last year’s A grades and 70% of this year’s A* grades, dispelling the other convenient myth the private school promoters put around, that As were too easy to attain, but the new A* would show just how much better the independent sector was.

So the media (did I tell you that virtually all national editors and senior commentators send their own kids to private school, in Mailgruppe Obergruppenfuhrer Dacre’s case to Eton, in the days before he bought his 15,000 acre Scottish estate)  nonetheless preferred to highlight the fact that private school students were three times as likely to get the new A* grade as those in comprehensives. If you take a few seconds to reflect on this, it is hardly surprising, given the fairly obvious possible link between privilege, affluence and educational attainment. News is meant to be driven by that which is more surprising. So real news values would have highlighted the relative improvements of the State schools which are so often deemed by their media critics to be bad. Ah, but that would interfere with the prejudices, n’est-ce pas?

Oh, and while I am in n’est-ce pas mode,  if I may make a rare criticism of the actions of a Labour government, can someone tell me why we made a foreign language optional? It happened after my time in Number 10, and it was a mistake. English may be the leading language in the world but that does not mean kids don’t benefit from learning the language of others. So does Britain.

But back to the skin penetration, another hugely intelligent twitterer, @Sir_Olly_C (beware a man with two underscores I say) piped up that ‘Aherm site [Truth about our Schools] run by Fiona Millar, previous advisor to Cherie Blair, so she can fuck right off.

Far from feeling hurt by this, I was strangely moved by the idea that it is now considered a bigger sin once to have advised Cherie than it is to have lived with me for 30 years and given birth to my three well-educated children.

  • Hold the front page Alistair criticises Labour government…!

  • Martin Le Jeune

    There is one piece of evidence missing from this and from the original piece. Not all A levels are GCSEs are regarded by universities aqs of equivalent academic difficulty and value (one of the reasosn why, as you say, foreign lanaguage study is in decline). To make a fair comparison between sectors we need to see subjects as well as overall grades.

  • Phil-stevens

    You say state school A’s/A*s up by 0.9% and C or better by 2.2% but then just say private schools “fell” without quantifying. You should also give absolute values. Off a low base, 2.2% may be very little and “fell” by a small amount could mean statistically irrelevant. I have no pre conceived idea, I’m genuinely interested on what is happening but I just can’t tell from here. I suppose I could read the report but then I’d have no reason to read your blog…..

  • Colin Cleaver

    The only language that seemed to have an increase in take-up was Polish, for fairly obvious reasons. I agree it is wrong thaf GCSE no longer includes a language. English may be number 1 in the world but it won’t always be so. Also a good discipline to learn languages. If Mandarin becomes the language of the future kids from those countries who have a habit of learning languages – the rest of Europe for example – will have an advantage

  • Hilary G

    All I know is my son (state school) got all As and A stars and I am proud as punch. Also know he did it cos he worked hard and we helped him.

  • John

    I agree with everything in this article except the bit about forcing a language. Loads of kids aren’t interested in learning a language, especially in the environment of a hot cramped classroom a thousand miles away from the actual place, culture and people. I remember being in the middle set at my comprehensive for French, most students didn’t care and treated it as a “mess about” lesson (a bit like how many students apparently treat learning Welsh in Wales). Half the students in my class got poor grades and it was hell for the teacher, and that was just in the middle sets. Was probably even worse in the lower sets. I think learning a language is definitely good and important but not for everyone, especially at GCSE level

  • Alan Quinn

    My eldest two both went to excellent primary and secondary schools, number one son just passed his 4th year medical exams and number one daughter is studying French and IR at St Andrews.
    I hope your daughter is getting better (number one son broke his leg two years ago playing that tarts game, rugby so I know how how uncomfortable it is for her).
    Back on to politics, it seems the coalition will severly impact the aerospace industry if press reports are to be belived re defence cuts. The coalition which wants to rebalance the economy by helping manufacturing, to help private industry pull out out of the recession and to build a skills base will have the death of the UK aircraft industry on their plate. Cameron assured me personally on BBC GMR that Typhoon would be safe under the tories, we shall see. If you can help us Ally, I’d be grateful.

  • A State School with a top notch HM can shit all over private boarding perv factory.
    The poorest kids in my school were the most driven

  • RB

    Let us look forward to the day when the two systems’ results coincide.

    In the meantime your malice should be turned on the “Jeremy Kylers” who cost us all tens of billions a year, are unemployable and educationally have done nothing….apart from drag down the other members of their classes, who may have had a desire to learn. You were a party to the introduction of the system whereby the decision to exclude the yobs could be overridden and the rest of the pupils would suffer.

    You also arranged a system where over 40% of some “Uni” entrants were slung out by some “Unis” for failing first year exams, having incurred great debt.

    You need to join up your thinking on education, and be less spiteful.

  • Teresa.

    It really does frustrate me when newsreaders do interviews after exam results come out, they always seem to say it is because of exams being dumbed down. The results don’t come easy, they really do have to work hard. My daughter goes to the local Comprehensive School, and is on target to get A’s and A stars next year. I find it really insulting and demoralizing for the kids who really do work hard.

  • Teresa.

    My daughter goes to the local secondary school, she works really hard, she’s now on target to achieve As and A stars next summer. I think it is really demoralizing and insulting to keep insisting that the exams have been dumbed down

  • Gazhay

    Whilst I agree with the blog on foreign languages, I feel it is far more important to mandate, at least GCSE, in sign language to create a truly inclusive society. The deaf should not be 2nd class, and of course many other non-deaf people sign to communicate.

  • Olli Issakainen

    I studied English, Swedish and German at school. And I have learned some French and Italian on my own for trips abroad.
    This has served me well. I have, for example, about 700 books in English – most of them have not been translated to Finnish.
    It is also good for business that many people here have command of foreign languages.
    And when you are abroad, it is polite to know at least a bit of the language.

  • Simon

    “So the media (did I tell you that virtually all national editors and senior commentators send their own kids to private school, in Mailgruppe Obergruppenfuhrer Dacre’s case to Eton,”

    And in Polly Toynbee’s case?
    And in Diane Abbott’s?

  • Anna

    A further point about state school pupils who go on to university. Private school parents bleat that comprehensive students are benefiting from positive discrimination at University and gaining admission with lower grades than those obtained by private/public school pupils. In fact, many universities are discovering that comprehensive students with lower grades actually cope better and get better final results than private school pupils with higher grades, who, once out of the hot-housing, cotton-wool wrapping, hand-holding atmosphere of their public schools, simply don’t do as well as their comprehensive school counterparts at university, where self-reliance comes into play. So it’s not ‘positive discrimination’, it’s picking those likely to perform best at university.