"The use of school type as a spurious proxy for advantage...is shallow and thoughtless"

Posted on: 27 May 2016

Chris Ramsey, headmaster of the King's School Chester and Hilary French, headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls respond to a cabinet minister's claims that companies should ask job applicants whether they went to private school.

The Telegraph reports that cabinet minister Matt Hancock has called for a system where companies should check the socio-economic background of job applicants, including where they went to school.

Here, Chris Ramsey, who speaks on higher education for HMC, and Hilary French, a former President of GSA reflect on that call.

Chris Ramsey

What a depressing day in the press!

On the one hand we have Ofqual responding to widespread concerns that the public examination system is unfit for purpose by making it more difficult to appeal (students shouldn’t have the luxury of challenging the experts as long as a mark is, in their Orwellian word, ‘appropriate’). Then the Paymaster General says that companies should ask applicants whether they have been to private school.

Well, I have more justification than some in taking issue with Matt Hancock, since he is an alumnus of the school whose Head I am. He’s an intelligent, charming and generous political rising star, but I think he has jumped on a bandwagon which has, to mix my metaphors, passed its sell-by date.

In a letter today to the minister today, I said this: "You know, as an Old King’s Scholar, that having been educated at an independent school is not of itself an indicator of social advantage. You may be interested to know that seven of our new 11+ students this coming year will be on substantial bursaries, and four young people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, will be entirely funded by our Owen Jones Charitable Fund, as were some of your classmates. They will presumably, under these measures, be thought of as privileged. Leaders in higher education mostly now realise that school type is a meaningless indicator (think of how socially advantaged some cabinet ministers’ children are, educated as they are at exclusive state schools in Westminster)."

Two years ago I wrote in an article on universities that ‘school type is a myth’. It’s even more true now than it was then.

For most members of the public, ‘state or private’ may have - until a few years ago - seemed an obvious, binary categorisation: ‘maintained school’ meant the local state school and ‘independent school’ meant the fee-paying middle and upper-middle classes.

This preconception is still of course happily fed by journalists, who quote fees and former pupils alongside any mention of an independent school, but it is a long way from the truth.

UCAS has, for example, moved to subtler divisions. They use no fewer than seven ‘school types’, one of which is further divided three ways. So we see schools classified as ‘academy’ (further divided into ‘academy former grammar, academy former comprehensive and academy other’) (accounting for 20.2% of applicants to university in 2013); further education (12.9%); grammar (3.97%); other (9.6%); sixth form colleges (17.5%), independent (10.7%) and state (25.1%). This is at least an attempt to move away from a crude division of school types, and an acknowledgement that the UK education system is more diverse than the press would have us believe.

Yet even these attempts to isolate more meaningful school / college backgrounds raise more questions than they answer. ‘Academy former grammar’ is clear (selective, and limited to a small number of former LEA areas... though what about these ‘other’ academies?); ‘academy former comprehensive’, however, could mean schools in special measures taken over by multi academy trusts for the purposes of raising their standards to at least adequate, or high-performing schools in middle-class areas wishing to achieve some measure of independence. Sixth form colleges often recruit heavily from the independent sector. And what is one to make of ‘state’ in this context?

Similarly, and especially since commentators tend to lump them together, ‘independent’ might be divided into ‘independent non-selective small boarding’, ‘independent, ancient, famous boarding’, ‘independent selective former direct-grant urban day’, and so forth. In other words, individual schools and individual students are precisely that: individual.

Self-evidently, a student is not defined by his or her background. To give two obvious examples, why should a full-bursary student from a disadvantaged background, educated at, say, Christ’s Hospital School (an independent school with a noble tradition of social diversity), be categorised with a full fee-payer at, say, Eton? Or pitted against the ‘state educated’ middle-class pupil at, say, The Judd School or London Oratory, two schools with noble and impressive traditions of high academic performance and some very wealthy people in their parent body?

The minister’s suggested approach – the use of ‘school type’ as a spurious proxy for ‘advantage’ - may be well-meaning, but it is shallow and thoughtless. If he had suggested that application forms should ask candidates to clarify whether they are black or white, or male or female, there would quite rightly been outrage. What he suggests is no less wrong-headed.

Hilary French

I was shocked when I read the Telegraph headline and now, having read the article, feel very sad.

No-one would argue against the goal of meritocracy, I am equally certain that blunt, in themselves discriminatory, measures like this will not get us any closer to that goal.

If we are trying to remove barriers there is no point in replacing them with others; if independent schools are perceived as being successful, why undermine excellence? Would it not be better to try to share and extend whatever is good about the independent model to all schools?

Do we know why independent schools are more successful? I would hazard an educated guess that success lies in a multiplicity of factors that go way beyond the school itself but are, of course, woven into the fabric of the ethos and purpose of independent schools.

A significant element of our ethos is the provision of financial support so that children can attend our schools.

There are always more worthy applicants for bursaries at Newcastle High School for Girls than we can realistically fund. Children who receive bursaries in the independent sector certainly benefit in many ways.

Rather than attacking the independent sector, might the politicians not find that funding bursaries at our schools could be a cost effective way to making significant steps towards a more meritocratic society?

About ISC Press Office

The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.