• Mabel Osejindu

Is Education in England a level playing field?

Education, they say, is a pathway to improving the lives of ourselves, others and leaving a community and world better than you found it (Marian Wright Edelman). Every year, thousands of new pupils graduate from primary school education and eagerly anticipate attending secondary school in the following academic year. Secondary schools enthusiastically advertise and promote their schools in local communities and parents diligently research and visit prospective schools months or even a year in advance. And why? To have that perfect match. Every parent wants their child to be educated in a good school and every school wants to receive a good number of prospective pupils for Year 7 onwards. But how far is this marriage between the two intentions influenced by the wider societal categories of social class and race? Does it matter what school a child attends for secondary education and then, higher education, for their future prospects? Many people are of the view that yes, of course, it does. After all, schools are rated and assessed and it's not particularly challenging to identify a reputable school from a ‘requires improvement’ one. I’d like to dive deeper into the difference between education at state-funded schools and independent schools, and the wider implications on their future careers and place in UK society today. State-funded secondary schools typically accept pupils aged 11 and above regardless of academic ability including academies and free schools, but on the contrary, Independent (and private) schools are registered schools that do not receive government funding but charge fees for pupils to attend and sometimes, accept pupils dependent on merit alone. According to official statistics taken in 2019 by the Department of Education, 3.33 million pupils entered state-funded secondary school education compared to 0.58 million pupils entering independent schools. Since 2009, the number of pupils in state-funded primary schools has steadily risen whereas the number of pupils in independent schools has been falling since 2017 and there are now approximately 2,300 fewer pupils than at that point. Given this, the question on the lips of British journalist, Ben Wright in a recent BBC Podcast “Loosening the Old School Tie”, was whether a ‘privileged education’ is, therefore, under threat.

On the face of things, British Independent schools are widely seen to provide the most well rounded and excellent education that equips their pupils with the best chances to go to a reputable Russell Group University and to secure a spectacular and well-paid professional role. Pupils who are awarded a place in independent schools by academic ability receive a wealth of admirable opportunities to study a broader range of subjects such as Latin, Classics, Mandarin, Philosophy and Environmental Science, be taught by talented and passionate teachers, have access to superb facilities and support, engage in a breath-taking array of sporting and extra-curricular activities and utilise investments taken in technology. Henceforth, children who go to academically selective schools are destined for greatness but state-funded schools welcome all pupils and thus, are portrayed to be of lesser value. Independent school pupils are 7 times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge compared to those in non-selective state schools (Sutton Trust). Contrastingly, State-funded secondary education has been plagued by a lack of funding, teacher shortages, larger classes, special needs, and deprived local communities and consequently, these children are unlikely to reach the top professions in the country. However, with the increasing availability of bursaries, grants, scholarships and even options to pay partial fees in recent years, independent school education is much more affordable for more members of local communities nationwide. But often not affordable enough. The average tuition fee for one term in an independent school can amount to approximately £3,500, which is well above the income threshold for most parents with low-income jobs, especially those with several children in the home. A situation was not made easier when tuition fees were first raised to £9,000 a year in 2012. Therefore, what we see now in universities and higher education settings, is an over-representation of students who attended private or grammar schools which is disparate from the sheer number of pupils who enter state-funded secondary schools and colleges in the first instance, compared to private schools. Only 48% of Cambridge applicants have not attended a private or grammar school (FOI). But there is a wider problem here because the proportion of acceptances of students with grammar and private backgrounds is higher than the proportion of applications of students with grammar and private school backgrounds. The data from the FOI also brings into question how students are categorised based on their prior education too.

According to the Sutton Trust, students gaining an offer from comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges who are accepted to Russell Group universities achieved just under AAB on average in their A-Levels in 2018 whereas those from independent schools achieved just under AAA. Yet, 21% of higher education applications from independent schools in England are for Oxford or Cambridge, compared to 5% at comprehensive schools and 4% at sixth form colleges. 16% of grammar school applications are to Oxbridge! Applicants from non-selective state schools were less likely to receive and accept an offer from a Russell Group university compared to independent schools (44% compared to 71%). It begs the question as to whether students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are being adequately encouraged to apply for top universities and are being offered the financial opportunities to do so. Such statistics prove the disparity between the prospects of state-educated and grammar school educated pupils is more multifaceted than meets the eye. Teachers do not encourage state-funded pupils to go to Oxford or Cambridge because they do not think they’ll get the grades, or their parents can't afford the tuition or they think that student is unlikely to get a scholarship or bursary to attend. But then, these same students are not receiving the high levels of education their independent school counterparts are so it's harder anyways (Not to mention pay freezes that many parents within the public sector have faced for years now).

But how much does a student’s prior education or socio-economic background influence their prospects? If a student is hard-working, committed and intelligent, they too can rise to the top of the education system and be accepted into Russell Group universities, even if their circumstances disagree with such aspirations. On the BBC podcast mentioned above, it was noted how some universities admire the work ethic and dedication of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they demonstrate resilience and varied life experience than perhaps what their private school educated peers could offer. Yes, they may not have engaged in stellar sporting tournaments or have learnt an instrument professionally, but they have worked part-time jobs or volunteered for companies with strong initiatives. One might suppose that universities in the UK ought to be filled with pupils from various backgrounds as both groups of students can benefit from interaction with each other to become the best versions of themselves. During her time as Prime Minister back in 2016, MP Theresa May herself advocated for an education system that did not suit only the privileged and fortunate few but that was “meritocratic” at heart. Cambridge university graduates and Authors of “Taking Up Space” by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi are flourishing examples that it is possible to attend the top universities in the country even if you come from a disadvantaged background. Having graduated with a degree in history and human, social and political sciences respectively, they document their experience being offered a place despite coming from a state-funded school and the lack of diversity in academia in general. Nonetheless, Chelsea Kwakye affirms that her history teacher in college was “influential in saying “you know what, you can definitely do it” and one of her PE teachers said, “if you got to the interview stage, you’d 100% get in”. Empowering talk that can ferment change in any student! Controversially, it is this very acceptance of students from non-selective schools which are supposedly threatening the high percentages of students going to Russell Group universities which independent schools are so used to promoting. Nowadays, privately educated pupils are not guaranteed a place in that Oxbridge or higher-level institutions because of their privileged education but universities are selecting pupils from a wide range of schools, as they ought to. If all Oxbridge universities only accept grammar school educated students, does it not only force state-educated ones to simply settle for other higher education universities lower down the league table that may not offer such grand prospects and hopes?

Universities should open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds. As advised in several educational authority papers, highly selective universities in particular, where low and moderate-income students are substantially under-represented, “should make greater use of contextual admissions, including reduced grade offers, to recognise the different circumstances faced by applicants”. I think that Universities should aim to strike a balance between the applicants they accept to show equality and broadness of prior educational background and each student regardless of school history has a fair chance of being accepted. I also want to encourage teachers who have taught in independent schools to give their expertise and time in a comprehensive school as a way of enriching the lives of other pupils with the knowledge they can impart through high-quality teaching. Lastly, if universities can continue to have outreach activities, open days and summer schools, students across the country can aspire to these destinations and education will be a level playing and equal playing field.