Competing with the elite

The school you attended remains one of the main indicators for your future earnings potential. Can state schools ever offer the same opportunities as the independent sector?

  • Last updated Apr 9, 2019 11:46:17 AM
  • Kerry Holmes

According to the Department for Education there are 3,436 state-funded secondary schools in the UK. These may be maintained by the local authority or they may be academies-which have more independence. Free schools are a type of academies which can be set up by an independent body such as a charity or community group. A few areas of the UK have kept a selective school system. Before these began to be phased out in the 1960s, children who passed the 11-plus would attend grammar school and those that didn’t would attend a secondary modern. In England, there are 163 grammars remaining, with 69 in Northern Ireland. 

UK children, those from the EEA, and those of parents who have a UK work visa, are eligible for free education in state schools. Government funding for state secondary schools equates to about £6,200 per pupil.

The UK also has 2,320 independent (private) schools including 500 private primary schools—usually called preparatory or prep schools. About half of independent secondary schools are academically selective and larger ones often take boarders. Children from overseas, not eligible for a free state education in the UK, can apply for a Tier 4 visa to attend independent schools. Parents are able to apply for temporary visas to accompany their children up until the age of 12 but cannot make their main home in the UK.

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) the average annual fee is £15,000 for a day pupil or £33,000 for a boarder. At prestigious schools, such as Eton and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, fees are about £40,000 per year. Nearly all independent schools offer means-tested bursaries and ability-tested scholarships. It is also possible to mix and match state and private education. Some wait to join private schools in year 7 or in year 9 for GCSEs. Others return to state schools for A Levels.

If parents’ aim is top exam grades at A Level, then investment in private education should pay off. 

Figures from ISC show that A* grades achieved at private schools are twice the national average. The proportion of private pupils achieving A*s and As has fallen by 4.1% over the past seven years, ISC points out there has been an increase in non-academically selective private schools. One suggestion for how private schools deliver better grades is that they don’t have to follow the National Curriculum which allows them to teach with more freedom. Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum either, but any advantage this brings may be masked, because failing schools are often compelled to convert to academies. 

A glance at any recruitment website shows that getting a good job requires at least a 2:1 university degree and good grades at A level help to achieve this. However, the advantages of a private education are broader. The 2014 ‘Elitist Britain’ report from the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, stated that 71% of senior judges, 50%of the House of Lords and 44% of The Sunday Times Rich List were privately educated. A long-term study of 7,000 people born in 1970, conducted by UCL, also showed that men who attended private schools were twice as likely to be top earners than those who went to a comprehensive—regardless of exam results. Women who went to private school benefited when applying for university but did not earn as much as men. 

With efforts in place to diversify the legal sector at firm level, it could be that the diversity problem starts much earlier, at school level. 

A fully private education is beyond the reach of most parents, but those with some disposable income are still able to buy their children an advantage. This may be moving to an area with good state schools, paying for extra tuition support and providing financial throughout university. It’s worth noting that less than excellent examination results don’t always indicate poorer teaching. Research from Tom Richmond at the Policy Exchange indicates that if progress is measured, rather than results alone, top state comprehensives come out above both private and grammar schools. 

Investing in a child’s education will usually yield higher earnings but true social mobility remains hindered while top employers continue to favour those from fee-paying schools and prestigious universities. In the highest-paid professions, attending Cambridge or Oxford is still the norm and the 7 per cent of children educated privately make up 42 per cent of places at Oxbridge. A transparent way to assess and standardise the quality of university degrees could help to persuade top employers to look beyond the few institutions they currently value. Current measures which attempt to raise standards in state schools—such as the National Curriculum and Standard Assessment Tests—are criticised by teachers as counter-productive because they take time away from quality teaching. True equality would require every pupil, whether at state or private school, to be given the same opportunity to achieve their potential. At the moment only those children able to access the very best that state schools can offer are able to compete with the privately educated.

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