Are state schools matching independent schools for academic results? No, well, it depends.
It’s a question of definition; how you define academic results, and whether you’re referring to all or some schools. The best state schools may be matching the best independent schools on exam results. But, as a group, independent schools outperform when it comes to access to the most prestigious schools and universities.
If academic results are important to you there’s a good reason. The traditional logic was something like this; better schooling leads to better progress which leads to better exam results which leads to a better university which leads to a better job.
Naturally, you start to read about academic results. And as you do, you get bogged down and confused. Depending on the day of the week you may read that independent schools achieve better academic results. Or, you may read that state schools are catching up or overtaking them. Then you may read that universities are discriminating against independent schools in favour of state school applications. Next you may read that academies are, or are not, performing better than other state schools. Oh, and then something about exam grade inflation. And you haven’t started on primary schools yet…
This article won’t dispel that confusion, but it might give you some useful yardsticks for comparing individual schools on academic results.
So how do you define academic results? Let’s keep it simple. We’ll start with exam results, academic progress and access to the next stage of education.
But measuring academic results is not as simple as you might think…
Comparing exam results for independent and state secondary schools
What is a parent to make of the claim and counter claim between political and educational interest groups? There is no consensus. Different interest groups use different statistics to make their case.
Take A Level results, for example. Most of us are used to seeing leagues tables in newspapers that rank schools by A Level points per entry (points per A Level). And, on average, 85 of the top 100 schools are independent schools. Now consider a different measure;
“Let’s take A Level points per pupil… compare the top 100 state schools to the top 100 private schools, the state schools outperform. Same if you compare the top 50. Or the top 200. Or any number you like…”
Fraser Nelson, Daily Telegraph and Spectator (August 2015)
His analysis is valid, but his conclusions refuted by the Independent Schools Council who prefer the points per entry method. So, depending on how we measure academic results, either the top state schools match the top independent schools, or they don’t.
I discuss how small the difference in league table positions are in “Don’t choose a selective school on academic results alone”.
Comparing academic progress for independent and state secondary schools
Now let’s look at academic progress. We all know, of course, that academic progress, “value added”, is more important than actual results. Why? Because it shows how pupils achieve relative to their academic potential.
But don’t look for any clarity on this measure either. Again, it all depends on how value added is measured. Here’s a study which presses the case for independent schools.
“The difference between independent and state schools…was just under 2 GCSE grades…However, when the prior academic ability, deprivation, student’s gender, single sex and compositional variables were taken into account, the difference…was 0.64 GCSE grades.”
“This difference…suggests that attending an independent school is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16.”
Independent Schools Council/Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University (Feb 2016)
Critics of this study pointed out that it compared the results of all independent schools to all state schools; not a like-for-like study. As you might imagine, many studies adjust raw figures to account for sample bias only to open further cans of interpretation worms. The problem for researchers is that they can’t take two identical “batches” of pupils to research and analyse.
Academic progress is all about the “baseline”
The most contentious aspect of measuring progress is the reference point (“baseline”) from which progress is calculated. Consider these two analyses that were topical in August 2017.
“When you compare the highest-achieving private schools, state selective schools and state comprehensive schools on the amount of progress that pupils make, it is the comprehensive schools that deliver the most progress [+0.2] for their pupils…leading private [+0.15] and state selective schools [+0.06]…are not as impressive as that of the leading comprehensives.”
Tom Richmond (Aug 2017)
The score numbers in square parentheses refer to proportion of an A Level. +0.2 means +0.2 of an A Level higher. +1.0 would mean a whole A Level grade. Disregarding the fact that margins are very slim anyway, this method used GCSE results as the baseline. Opponents criticise the analysis because pupils at the top selective schools, having achieved the highest marks in GCSE, have less room to progress.
Two weeks later, another analysis used expected A Level grades as the baseline for measuring progress.
“…independent schools had an A-level value added score of +0.15, while that of the state schools was +0.03…it seems that independent schools do tend to achieve slightly higher value-added scores than state schools where expected results are similar.”
Education Datalab (Aug 2017)
Comparing university admissions for independent and state schools
In 2016 state school pupils accounted for 90% of admissions to UK universities. But for the more prestigious universities the numbers were lower. 60% for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. 80% for the other 22 Russell Group universities.
These headline figures suggest that independent schools are more successful than state schools at winning entry to the better universities. And the detail is more emphatic.
A Sutton Trust report in 2008 (updated in 2011) ranked the top 100 schools by admissions to Oxbridge. The measure they used was “hit rate”; the proportion of Oxbridge admissions to all university admissions for that school.
Accounting for 30% of Oxbridge admissions over a three year period their hit rates ranged from 10% and 50%. Tellingly, the list comprised 78 independent schools, 21 grammar schools and 1 comprehensive school. The report authors expanded the analysis to include 11 other Russell Group universities. Hit rates were, of course, higher; between 44% and 86%. But the results were similar. The top 100 comprised 82 independent schools, 17 grammar schools and one comprehensive school.
The data is old, and there has been some improvement in access for state school pupils since 2011. However, when it comes to access to the more prestigious universities, it seems that a select number of independent and grammar schools enjoy more success.
The hit rate numbers are a useful guide for parents, if the Sutton Trust report is still valid. A top 100 school by academic achievement will send 10% of its pupils to Oxbridge. In addition (and by extrapolation), it will send 70% of its pupils to Russell Group universities.
Do academic results help us choose between independent and state senior schools?
Where do we go with this? Well, it seems to me that the very best academically selective state schools do match the very best academically independent schools. For exam results that is. It’s the old truism of a bright and confident child succeeding wherever they go. But I’m not sure whether the “best” list extends to the top 50, 100 or 300.
If exam results are the sole purpose of education for you, and your child is academically able, it seems sensible not to pay but find a good state school. Some people switch between independent and state for this reason. Of course, this leads to the question of what independent schools charge school fees for. The answer lies in the broad education question, which I explore here.
But why is it that state schools seem to be matching independent schools on A Level results but not when it comes to access to the most prestigious universities? Is it snobbery on behalf of the universities? I hope not. Is it that universities are looking for more than the A Level results show? Evidence of the ability to think outside the constraints of rote learning? Is it a pupil confidence, training or preparedness issue? Is it the benefits of the broad curriculum at school?
Comparing academic results on such a broad classification such as state or independent is of limited use to a parent choosing a school. However, comparing a small group of prospective schools does have merit. As does understanding why their academic results may differ.
Comparing academic results for prep and state primary schools
With primary schools the debate is less well informed because there is less data. There are no exam results to compare across all schools. State primary pupils sit SATS exams in Years 2 and 6. So we can compare academic results among state schools. But prep school pupils don’t, well, 80%+ don’t.
Prep schools, on the other hand, compare themselves on senior school admissions. The more places won at prestigious schools the more academically successful they can claim to be. Prep school educated pupils account for 70% of independent senior school and 10% of grammar school admissions.
Does this statistic show that prep schools are better academically than state primaries? No. It discounts the majority of state primary pupils who have no choice over their senior school. But this statistic is the (subconscious) rationale for parents choosing a prep school over a state primary. And because 95% of prep school pupils go on to an independent senior or grammar school, prep schools may be seen as a safer bet.
Comparing academic results for academies and maintained schools
Do academies achieve better academic results than maintained schools? As ever, some do, some don’t. But overall, academy status is not yet showing a wholesale improvement in academic results; at any stage of education. Given the high profile of the academisation programme there have been many venerable research institutes investigating its effectiveness;
“[We] have not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools.”
House of Commons Education Committee (Jan 2015)
“There is no real change to the primary school test scores of incoming pupils once the schools become converter academies.”
“[There is] no evidence of a positive effect on GCSE attainments of converter academies…”
The Education Policy Institute and London School of Economics (July 2017)
The lesson for parents, again, is that schools should only be compared on an individual basis, not by group characteristics.