It’s time to acknowledge that private schools have leveled up education

The recent statement by Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, that independent schools will face declining numbers of offers to their pupils in the face of rising competition from the state sector will ring some alarm bells about positive discrimination – should a young person be punished for attending a good school? – but it has the potential to be good news for both independent and state schools. The crucial point here is that entry to the country’s top universities should be on merit, not because the candidate ticks the most boxes on someone’s social agenda.

If state schools are producing more viable candidates for top universities we should all be celebrating. At the same time, rather than criticize independent schools for cornering the market in entry to Oxford and Cambridge, credit should be given to them for the contribution they have made to raising standards in the state sector. A classic example is the London Academy of Excellence, a 6th Form College in London’s East End, with an admissions policy that favors local applicants. It was founded with half a dozen independent schools, including Eton and Brighton College, acting as mentors and close partners.

The results have been staggering, not least of all because each year 25 or more of its students gain places at Oxford or Cambridge – a figure that would cause many independent schools to throw the biggest party in their history. It is only one of very many schemes whereby independent schools have successfully followed the desire of Lord Adonis for independent schools to share their DNA with the state sector. It is time that the often-maligned independent sector was given credit for the measures it has taken to justify and earn its privileged status.

Yet at the heart of the debate over public versus state school entry to top universities lies a crucial issue, which is how our state schools deal with their more able pupils. It is to Ofsted’s credit that it was the first organization to severely criticize the provision for our more able students in many state schools. The reasons are numerous – the belief that ability will always show itself and rise to the top (it doesn’t), the fact that there are no votes in increasing provision for “clever” children, accusations of elitism made against those who try to bring in schemes for the more able, the fact there is no career ladder for those who specialize in the more able (one headteacher in my research stated that putting time into schemes for the more able was akin to a doctor putting time into people who were not ill) and so on.

The facts – and I spent a year visiting many countries worldwide to see how they educate their more able children – are that our more able students require specialist treatment. The failure of the comprehensive system comes about when it becomes a one-size-fits-all system – which many comprehensive schools have shown need not be the case.

What Stephen Toope should be adding to his speeches is that universities such as his should not be having to offer “foundation years” for students who have not been prepared for the rigors of a top university education, or “making allowances” for disadvantaged young people who have been in full time education at the taxpayers’ considerable expense for 13 years. We have a right to expect all schools to identify candidates worthy of a place at Cambridge.

The leaders of our great universities should also acknowledge that independent schools – which educate a very broad range of ability – have learned how to identify the more able and prepare them for top degree places. Rather than prophesying doom for their candidates, they should be encouraged to share even more the skills they have acquired. Indeed, many independent schools, like state schools, are keen on having a level playing field, and some schools such as Manchester Grammar School have been helping to level that field for hundreds of years.

If the very best candidates gain the places they deserve, everyone wins. The problem with entry to Oxford and Cambridge isn’t with the 7 per cent of children who attend independent schools. It’s with the 93 per cent who do not.

Martin Stephen is the author, with Ian Warwick, of Educating the More Able. What Works and Why, and a Governor of The London Academy of Excellence


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