Attacking teachers in state schools and repeatedly telling us how inferior we are to our counterparts in the independent sector is becoming something of a national sport, particularly among the upper echelons of politics and journalism.
The Grey Man enters the fray
The latest grandee to add his tuppence worth to this salvo is John Major. In a widely reported speech to the Norfolk Conservative Association, Major bemoaned the preponderance of the privately educated in the upper ranks of society. Most of the press reported this as Major attacking Cameron’s Government of the Posh, a version of events that is however somewhat misleading.
As Tim Black, deputy editor of Spiked Magazine points out:
“The speech Major gave on Friday is not the speech that his new-found cheerleaders think he gave. In fact, the text itself suggests that Major wasn’t attacking private schools for fuelling so-called inequality (this remember is the man who, as prime minister, maintained a state subsidy for private schools, indeed, the man who sent his own kids to private schools). No, Major was in fact attacking (among other things) existing state education.” (1)
So Old Mr Grey of Traffic Cone Hotline fame wasn’t having a go at the posh at all. In fact he was putting the boot into state schools. What’s more, Black agrees with him:
“But there is something to Major’s attack. Kids being educated at state schools vastly outnumber the seven per cent of pupils who attend private schools. And yet, as everyone surely now knows, that seven per cent do indeed seem to dominate the upper echelons of society. For instance, 54 per cent of Tory MPs, 40 per cent of Lib Dem MPs and 15 per cent of Labour MPs were privately schooled. Similar ratios prevail across law, finance and journalism.
“Yet the problem is not the existence of private schools, where the expectations and demands are as high as the educational attainment. The problem is the existence of too many state schools, where the expectations and demands are as low as the educational attainment is massaged.”
So there we have it. Independent schools are vastly superior to state schools because those of us who teach in state schools have such low expectations of our pupils. (Perhaps on reflection ‘teach’ is putting it too strongly. In Mr Black’s view of the world we must spend all day sitting in the staffroom with our feet on the desks smoking our pipes and massaging our figures.)
The Public Schools Disagree
Strange therefore that the Head Masters’ Conference (HMC), the body which promotes and markets independent schools to prospective parents, puts such little emphasis on the supposed gulf in expectations between independent and state schools. So how does HMC explain the difference in attainment?
“Our schools have some of the lowest student-staff ratios in UK schools, one teacher for every 9 pupils compared with one teacher for every 22 pupils in the state sector.
Significantly smaller class sizes are proven to improve academic achievement as the ability to spend more time with each child allows teachers to get to know their personal strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, ensuring that their individual needs are met.” (2)
HMC is absolutely right of course. They identify what works and they explain clearly why it works. It is a little surprising therefore that the political leaders who worship the independent sector don’t play a blind bit of notice to what they have to say about how they achieve their academic success.
We all know why the politicians do that of course. Huffing and puffing about “expectations” costs a damn site less than reducing class sizes in state schools! (Although Tim Black has no such excuse for his sloppy journalism.)
The figures don’t just speak for themselves – they scream at us
The raw figures are so stark as to be actually quite shocking and worth emphasizing. These from the OECD:
Average class size in UK state primaries 25.7
Average class size in UK private primaries 13 (3)
So class sizes in state primaries ARE DOUBLE those in private primaries. Not one or two more pupils. Double. We should be screaming this from the rooftops and whipping up a sense of national outrage. Therein lies the true horror of our class ridden education system, not in any baloney about expectations.
The situation in secondaries is similarly outrageous. HMC suggests average PTR in its schools is 9. The UK Government figures suggest that the average class size in state secondaries fluctuated between 20 and 22, between 1979 and 2011, while average PTR in state secondaries varied between 16 and 18 over the same period. (4)
Parentdish makes no bones about class size when it argues that parents should be prepared to fork out upward of £12 000 to £20 000 a year (for day pupils) to send the little dears to independent schools. No mention of ‘expectations’ though. (5)
(Then again, perhaps Gove, Major and their loyal followers have got it right and the independent school headmasters and the independent school parents have got it completely wrong. Mr Gove needs to have a little word with those mischievous headmasters and get them on message!)
Finland – an oasis in the educational desert
It doesn’t have to be like this of course. Consider the OECD figures for Finland:
Finland state primaries 19.8
Finland private primaries 18.4 (3)
There are of course many reasons why Finland appears consistently, year after year, right at the top of the PISA international league tables. Since 1979 Finland has insisted on Masters level qualifications for all its teachers; teachers are given considerable autonomy and left in peace to get on with the job; there is no high stakes testing below the age of 18; play based learning predominates in the early years; there is no equivalent to Ofsted; there is much less inequality in Finnish society; there are very few private schools and all state schools are local authority comprehensives. In a word, Finland represents everything Gove hates; yet Finland stubbornly and repeatedly outperforms Govian favourites such as Sweden and the US. (Indeed, so awkward is Finland to Gove’s view of the world, that I wouldn’t be surprised, should Gove ever become prime minister, if our secret service were to suddenly discover weapons of mass destruction in Finland as an excuse to bomb the place into the stone age.)
But of all the reasons for Finland’s amazing success, the reform that Finnish teaching unions insisted upon first and foremost was a dramatic reduction in class sizes. (6)
My own experience
For all its many faults, the last Labour Government did raise spending in schools, and this did make a noticeable difference.
The biggest impact of that increased spending has in my opinion come from a small reduction in class sizes. When I started in my present school in 1996 we had six maths sets per year group (of between 150 and 160 students.) This gave us an average class size of 25.8. We would usually put around 30 students in the higher sets in order to bring the size of the lower sets down a bit. A few years later we traded one period per fortnight for an extra set in KS4, bringing the average down to 22.1. And more recently we have had 8 sets (average 19.3)
While this is nowhere near enough – and nowhere near the figures for the independent sector – it has made a big difference to teaching and learning in my school. As the HMC says, I can spend more time with each child and I am more able to meet individual needs. I can mark books more thoroughly. Teaching is more enjoyable and less stressful. Behaviour and academic outcomes have improved accordingly.
But this is just a taster.
Imagine how much more we could achieve if we enjoyed the same class sizes as the independent sector.
Can we afford it?
There would of course be financial and economic consequences of such a radical reduction in state school class sizes.
We would need to build new schools. Good. Let’s put building workers back to work.
We would need to recruit and train more teachers. Good. Let’s reduce graduate unemployment.
How would we pay for it?
If we can find untold billions to bail out the banks, or to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, then we can find the money to properly fund our children’s education.
We could start by removing the subsidy (charitable status) from the independent schools. We could then raise income and wealth taxes on the rich and on the bloated corporations, who have seen their private riches multiply to literally obscene levels in recent years.
We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Shame on us if we can’t redirect that wealth away from individual greed and towards where it’s really needed.
If those of us who teach in the state sector have any self respect whatsoever, we must never accept the patronising nonsense that tries to explain different levels of academic achievement by differences in ‘expectations’.
And if we care for our students – which I believe we do, passionately – then we must fight tooth and nail for our children to enjoy and benefit from class sizes at least as good as those experienced by the children of the rich.
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