Not as clear cut as the hatchet wielders think

September 22, 2000

Ian Beer believes that it is unfair to caricature independent schools as the tools of a self-perpetuating elite

It has been difficult to work out exactly what this summer's row about university admissions has been about. For some, it seems to have been about academic standards and whether A levels are a discriminating guide for university admissions. Others have concentrated on social class, whatever that now signifies. Concern has also been expressed about types of schools - comprehensive, selective, independent - and their success in preparing students for higher education.

All these issues interconnect but, since the Laura Spence affair, the air has been thick with the sound of hatchets being dug up and sharpened.

Contributions to the debate have told us more about the prejudices of the protagonists than about what is happening. Reading many of the newspaper commentators, one might have imagined that Oxford University, for example, had taken no steps whatsoever to encourage applications from state schools.

In such a controversy, certain assumptions take on the status of landmarks: unchallenged, they come to define the parameters of the debate. Two in particular have caused consternation among independent schools. One is that independent school candidates get more than their fair share of places on sought-after courses at prestigious universities. The second is that independent school pupils are more privileged than those educated at state schools. Both assumptions have the attractive simplicity of most media "factoids".

The argument about proportionality is a simple one: independent schools educate about 7 per cent of the school-age population, so if their pupils win more than that proportion of university places, they must be conferring an unfair advantage.

It is not that simple. Overall, the proportion may be 7 per cent, but among school pupils of sixth-form age, it is more like 20 per cent. And when it comes to high achievement at A level, independent school candidates represent nearly 30 per cent of those achieving 30 points or more - the equivalent of the totemic three A grades.

Closer study of performance in individual subjects shows more clearly why so many candidates from independent schools end up where they do in higher education. Analysis of 1999 data from the Department for Education and Employment shows that, in the "hardest" subjects, independent school candidates punch well above their weight.

In chemistry, 30 per cent of entries and 45 per cent of A grades were achieved by independent school candidates. In physics, the figures were per cent of entries and 42 per cent of A grades, and in maths, 28 per cent of entries and 40 per cent of A grades. Similar discrepancies applied in economics, languages and classics.

Apparent certainties similarly start to crumble when the assumption about the privileges enjoyed by independent school pupils is examined. Certain advantages are incontestable: few independent school students battle with poverty and deprivation, and most come from families where education is highly valued.

It is less frequently noted that these observations can be made of many state school pupils. The families who make use of the independent sector are not a homogeneous group.

The Independent Schools Information Service carried out for the Independent Schools Council a survey of more than 8,000 of this summer's leavers from more than 200 independent schools. The survey confirmed that: n One-third were from families where neither parent was a graduate

* About half of the leavers were "first-time buyers", ie neither parent had been educated at an independent school

* One in five had parents who were not graduates and had not been educated at independent schools.

It is an obsolete caricature to maintain that independent schools serve the interests of a self-perpetuating elite. On the contrary, for tens of thousands of parents, they are the engines of social mobility - the means by which they try to ensure that their children achieve more than they did themselves.

Nor do independent schools want to serve the interests of privileged access; there is no nostalgia for the days of closed scholarships. Independent schools applaud the efforts of philanthropists such as Peter Lampl to give opportunities to those disadvantaged by circumstances or ineffective education. But government pressure to adopt admissions policies influenced by unfocused A-level statistics, as some have suggested (and as some Cambridge colleges have been reported to be operating), or worse, on the basis of postcodes, will create new injustices, denying opportunities to young people on the grounds of decisions made by their parents.

Ian Beer is chairman of the Independent Schools Council.

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