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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

17 August 2010


Set against the backdrop of increased competition for university places and the imminent release of another crop of GCSE and A-Level results, the press has been awash with tales of how privately educated pupils are expected to significantly outperform their state educated counterparts in the attainment of the much coveted A* grade.

Such reportage has, inevitably, re-opened the perennial debate concerning state versus private education. The debate is, to put it mildly, something of an educational bramble bush. It is a prickly subject which is inextricably bound up with wider socio-politics as well as the far deeper philosophical notions of liberty and parental obligation. Nonetheless, I will attempt to briefly address a few of its thorny bits in coming posts, starting with the notion held by a surprising number of people that the quality of teachers is better in the private sector than the state.

A good place to begin is with David Lyscom, head of the Independent School’s Council (ISC). Speaking to the Observer last week regarding the approaching A-Level results, Mr Lyscom commented that: ‘It looks as if we will get a disproportionate number of A* grades… our pupils will perform very well at A* [level] because of the way they are taught. Not being taught to a particular exam but teaching around the exam makes our pupils better at doing exams. It also means they are better suited for the demands of A*’. Mr Lyscom is quite explicit: private school pupils will outstrip their state counterparts in their attainment of the highest grades ‘because of the way they are taught’.

A public comment on The Guardian website which follows the article in which Mr Lyscom is quoted (Public Schools... 15/08/10) denounces those educationalists working in the state sector as ‘shoddy bastards’ who ‘need to raise their game’ whilst others bemoan the number of useless teachers who enter the state system because, with their poor degrees, ‘they can’t do anything else’. The quality of its teachers, so the theory goes, must be integral to the shortcomings of the state system.

So where to begin the debunk…?

Let’s start by imagining a typical private secondary school class. In this class will be an average of 10 middle and upper class pupils, perhaps with a solitary pupil from a poorer background on a scholarship.* The vast majority of pupils have educated parents who value their children’s education very much. There is a strong likelihood that all of these pupils will have passed entrance tests and will have been actively selected to meet the required academic standards of the school, possibly based upon their SATs results. There will likely be no pupils with any behavioural, emotional or educational needs that could be seriously detrimental to their learning or that of others.

Now let’s make some adjustments. First of all, let’s add a few pupils – let’s say 15-20, giving us a class size of 25 to 30 instead of 10. Now let’s say that of those pupils, there are at least 10 whose parents really aren’t very well educated and a fair few who don’t value their children’s education. Let’s add that some pupils have very unstable social backgrounds and are involved in street crime, violent gang culture and anti-social behavior on a regular basis. Some pupils will be ‘latch-key kids’ who have very little parental contact or educational support at home as their mother is working two jobs to support the family. Up to a quarter of the class have some form of Special Educational Needs, be it behavioural or mental in nature, which makes it more difficult for them to learn. Some will be actively hostile and physically aggressive in school on a regular basis.

We also need to make some adjustments to the private school environment where we are imagining our class. Let’s remove the swimming pool, the tennis courts, the theatre, the playing fields. Let’s remove the up to date ICT suite and the language technology centre with modern language learning equipment and the fully stocked science laboratories and music labs. Let’s also remove the ability to use parental ‘fundraisers’ or the resources of alumni to help with necessary improvements to the school. And we should also strip parents of the necessary finances to pay for extra tutoring should a child be struggling in a particular subject.

There is one final, yet absolutely crucial, tweak that we need to make. Let’s impose upon our private school management the prescriptive state guidelines pertaining to the exclusion of pupils who do not meet the school’s criteria for appropriate behaviour. In fact, let’s make it really quite difficult to have a child permanently excluded, even when that child’s behaviour is incredibly disruptive to teaching and learning across the school.

And then, once we’ve done all of that, we have effectively turned our average private school class into a fairly common state school class in a 'challenging catchment'.  It does not take a lot of thought to decide which set of teachers is likely to achieve a ‘disproportionate number of A* grades’.

By way of clarification - and it is an important one - I by no means intend to imply that all state schools are riddled with poor resources and behavioural problems; many state schools (generally in stable, well maintained catchment areas) perform superbly at the upper end of the results scale and a slew of other achieve phenomenal results with incredibly tough intakes. Rather, I am simply seeking a little honesty concerning the real reasons behind the results disparity between the state and independent sectors which has precious little to do with the pedagogy.

Of course, this is not to deny the existence of some genuinely terrible teachers in the state system. But in my experience, they are far rarer than one might expect. In general terms, if we imagine a race between a state school teacher in a challenging catchment area and a private school teacher, I’m afraid to say that the private school teacher is half-way around the track before the starting gun has even been fired.

Writing in the Telegraph (Teaching? It's a Job for a Saint 20/01/10), private school teacher Rebecca Fowler describes herself as a ‘refugee’ who fled the state sector when persistently faced with ‘profound and complex layers or social deprivation; a gaspingly inarticulate underclass’ and ‘drug dependency and violence’. Indeed.

Take heed, Mr Lyscom: it is not quite so easy to enable pupils to reach A* grades when, to borrow from Ms Fowler again, you are ‘trying to teach Shakespeare with one hand while dialing 999 with the other.’

* Average pupil to teacher ratio 9.5:1 in independent schools according to the Independent Schools Council (2009)


  1. Yes, yes and a further yes!

  2. This is a superb article which highlights the inequities of the educational system in this country. Finally, someone has listed the blindingly obvious advantages-other than the pedagogical brilliance of the teaching staff-that lead to private schools achieving a 'disproportionate number of A* grades.'

    In addition to the issues raised, the high percentage of children in many state schools who do not speak English as a first language is yet another challenge which affects private schools to a lesser degree. On the DFES website it states that, in August 2009, 15.2% of children in state primary schools and 11.1% in secondary schools were recorded as having a mother tongue other than English, whilst in Inner London around 54.1% of pupils were recorded as learning English as an additional language. Obviously, a great number of children who speak English as an additional language are extremely proficient and feel more confident in their use of English than they do in their mother tongue, but there are also a great number of children who struggle with the language and lack basic literacy skills. It is the teacher’s job to ensure that these children can access the curriculum in a classroom environment and that means differentiating work and using a variety of teaching and learning strategies to ensure their inclusion. I wonder if 'teaching around the test' would be quite so simple and effective if a number of the children in the class had only a basic command of the English language.

    As a state school teacher it is refreshing to read such a well-reasoned defence of the system by someone who actually has teaching experience. I assume that the 'shoddy bastards' comment was made by someone with little or no teaching experience in either type of school; It infuriates me that some people feel equipped to make such derogatory statements without knowing anything about the daily trials that teachers in the state sector face.

  3. You are doubtlessly quite correct. The question we face then, is what do we do about it?

  4. I think the point of this article, rather than to offer a list of ways to solve the issues that have plagued state education for many years, is to shed some honest light on what difficulties that state teachers face. Many of these issues may not actually appear in a private school.

    As evident yet again by the reaction to the A-level results yesterday (i.e. the exams must be too easy), it is quite correct for the author to highlight the lack of appreciation shown to the countless number of top professionals that exist in the state sector.

    Some honest and positive media is much required to, at the very least, give a fair reflection of the system to the public.