The number of pupils moving between state and independent schools is increasing.
It seems that more and more people are talking about moving between state and independent schools. If you’re considering switching from a prep school to a state secondary (grammar) or a state primary to a independent secondary you’re not alone.
The topic is particularly relevant for parents for whom independent schooling is on the margins of affordability. Affordable that is, at a squeeze and with some degree of sacrifice. If the evidence is correct, some 30% of independent school parents could not afford a 20% hike in fees. If we include those parents for whom independent school fees are already just on the wrong side of affordability, we could be talking about a total pupil population of 400,000. That is, 30,000 pupils per year group potentially moving between state and independent schools. It’s 5% of the school population. These are the parents who are receiving the popular advice of; independent nursery followed by state primary followed by independent secondary followed by state 6th Form.
What are the reasons for moving between state and independent schools?
Firstly, we are all becoming savvier consumers. We compare cost and benefit for most of our purchases, large and small. Our children’s education is no different.
We can compare schools on their merits and make an informed choice at the beginning of our child’s school career. If the school lives up to our expectations we’re unlikely to consider switching schools, or type of school. Unless we relocate. Home/work relocation is a major trigger for movement in both directions.
Otherwise it’s when we experience dissatisfaction that the trigger for switching occurs. Triggers for moving from state to independent schools include; a perception of better academic results, broader curriculum, better facilities and better studying environments. Triggers for moving from independent to state schools are; rising school fees, opacity of value for money, and fear of bias against independent schools at university admission.
The importance of these triggers varies according to the stage of education.
Moving from independent primary to state secondary schools (prep to grammar)
Switching from an independent primary to a state secondary is particularly popular in areas where there are selective state secondary schools (grammar schools).
As most parents know, gaining entry to a grammar school requires two things; success at 11+ and living within the school’s catchment area. Around 30% of pupils pass the 11+ exams so physical proximity to the school is all important.
Research from the Sutton Trust (2013) concluded that 12.7% of pupils at grammar schools were educated at independent prep schools. Similarly, a Freedom of Education request by the Kent Messenger Group to Kent schools in 2012 found that 10% of grammar school pupils were from independent prep schools. For two grammar schools the prep school population was as high as 40%.
85-90% of pupils at prep schools go on to independent secondary schools. Extrapolating the Sutton Trust research suggests that (nationally) about 10% (2,900) of independent school pupils leave for grammar schools at the end of Year 6. This 10% switching is a national number but only occurs within selective education authorities.
Competition for grammar school places is intense. It is the raison d’être for many prep schools in selective areas such as Kent, Buckinghamshire, Trafford and Slough. In these areas as many as 50% of prep school pupils go on to grammar schools. But it’s not just prep school pupils who are coached. Research from Education Datalab (2017) suggested that 55% of all pupils at grammar schools had been tutored for the 11+ exam. Furthermore, 70% of those who had been tutored won a place at a grammar school.
Moving from state primary to independent secondary schools
Switching from a state primary to an independent secondary school is a traditional way of managing the total fee burden.
The majority of switching happens at the Year 6/7 transition (Year 7/8 in Scotland and Ireland). Though in theory, a child can switch at any time if there are places available and they meet entry requirements.
State primaries don’t coach pupils for 11+ or independent school entrance exams so many parents opt for a private tutor. There could be as many as 130,000 state primary pupils being privately tutored for a place at an independent (or grammar school) school every year.
According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) there are around 33,000 pupils in independent education in Year 6. This rises by 9,000 pupils in Year 7, the first year of senior school. Adjusting for independent-to-state-switching, 12,000 state primary pupils switch to an independent school in Year 7 or transition year equivalent.
In other words, those 12,000 state primary pupils account for around 30% of the independent senior school places in any given year.
Anecdotally, the numbers stack up, though with a degree of variation. City of London School claims that state primary pupils make up 65% of its Year 7 intake. Some all through schools observe a “third, third, third” rule. Admissions are divided evenly between their own junior school graduates, other independents and state primaries. However, other all through schools can take a very small number outside their own junior school. This is particularly true in competitive areas such as South West London. The ISC also reports that in Year 7 22,000 independent school pupils are “new to their school”. Presumably 12,000 are from state primaries and 10,000 from independent preps or overseas.
Moving between state and independent schools in the Sixth Form
Until recently, all switching in the sixth form was from state to independent schools. The reason was usually the perception that independent schools provided better academic training for university entry. Today, there is sufficient evidence that academic results from the best state six forms rival those of the best independent schools. And then there is the small matter of positive discrimination of some universities in favour of state educated candidates.
There is conflicting evidence about the scale and direction of moving between state and independent schools in the sixth form. According to ISC figures, the net number of pupils in independent schools declines from Year 11 (GCSE) to Year 12 by 3.5%. The corresponding drop in pupil numbers state schools is nearer 60%. As a result, independent schools account for just over 15% of sixth formers. The ISC also reports that around 25% of pupils are “new to their school” in Year 12. My informed guess is that 15-20% points of that 25% is churn between independent schools. That leaves 5-10% points or 2,000 to 4,000 pupils as the net migration into independent education.
If so, it suggests that among switchers, the perceived benefits of an independent sixth form education still outweigh state. Even with the downsides of cost and potential university admissions discrimination.