Comment: We don’t live in a meritocracy

By Neil Roskilly

The Conservative candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, Maria Hutchings, has provoked quite a backlash after suggesting her son needs private schooling to become a surgeon.

Specifically, he wants to become a cardio-respiratory surgeon and it seems that only independent education is likely to get him into that specialism. Ed Miliband has called this an "insult to every state school in the country. And all of their pupils".

I'm not sure what it is about by-elections that brings out the prejudices in those involved. Education is a political hot potato, of course, and everyone has a view, based largely on their own experiences. Maria is defending choice and rightly putting family first, she feels, while Ed is just trying to gain the moral high ground while pandering to Labour's core voters, being a success of the state system himself. Both of course could be accused of selfism.

So is Maria Hutchings right? Will her son stand a better chance of becoming a career surgeon if he is privately educated?

Let's assume that he is a bright boy (his mother claimed "gifted") and that he is single-minded in his aim. Distractions will abound for the young Hutchings as he works his way through either system but let's take the view (one of many assumptions, I'm afraid) that his ambition isn't derailed by the challenges of youth.

The first point of possible divergence in his life chances will be access to specialist teaching, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects around the age of 13. Private schools are not required to employ qualified teachers so exposure to QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) isn't guaranteed, but they tend to appoint academically-successful teachers and arrange the curriculum to expose pupils to specialist subjects and teaching earlier.

As a result, young Hutchings is more likely to experience separate sciences and mathematics beyond the constraints of the national curriculum at an earlier age – a telling advantage. The National Curriculum in England was only intended as a minimum entitlement, but soon expanded to squeeze out learning in depth. Private schools are not subject to the same constraints and the best use this opportunity to challenge pupils intellectually and deepen their understanding.

Hutchings Junior, should he take the independent route, will also be supported by strong pastoral systems that focus on individual pupils' needs and provide regular feedback to parents. Out of all possible interventions, research shows that the relationship between the pupil and a trusted teacher is the most powerful in raising aspirations. The most successful people in our society can often look back to their time at school and identify the benefits of a strong mentoring relationship.

Pressured teachers in state schools, despite their best intentions, aren't always able to offer the gift of time to their charges. One factor behind this is of course small class sizes. With pupil-teacher ratios in ISC (Independent Schools Council) schools of around 11:1, young Hutchings will find that there's nowhere to 'hide' and he will be expected to perform. While there are anecdotal reports from many state schools that the gifted and talented don't like to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of ridicule, the culture of high expectations in private schools means that pupils stand out if they don't come up to the mark and regular formative assessment keeps them on track.

Furthermore, exposure to a wide range of extra-curricular activities and sports provides additional advantage and it is often these wider experiences and achievements that eventually allow universities to differentiate between candidates applying with top grades.

Finally, in his latter independent school years, young Hutchings will be offered practice interviews and relevant work experience (vital for medical school applications) as part of an extensive careers education programme that most maintained schools could only dream of. There's no doubt that his confidence and self-esteem will be strong.

But that's probably not all that is going through Maria Hutchings' mind. She is most likely aware that a majority of the UK's top surgeons were independently educated. She will put aside reports that some universities are said to be discriminating against private school applicants to satisfy the access arrangements as part of their funding. And if parents have the wherewithal to spend their hard-earned cash on private education, then what's so wrong with that? The same kind of fuss isn't raised if you buy a car or house larger than you need – that's just seen as helping the economy.

Independent schools in the UK are after all the envy of the world, with so many countries sending their sons and daughters to the UK to access the quality of education that may give them an advantage in an increasingly competitive and internationalised world.

What grates with Ed Miliband of course is that we don't live in a meritocracy. The rich, he feels, can access advantage unfairly and private school dominance of the top professions is self-perpetuating, to the detriment of others in society who are potentially equally capable. Talent goes untapped and social mobility has largely stalled, he would recognise, and the wealth gap has widened under recent governments. In much of this he is right, of course, and independent schools also recognise this.

Perhaps, surprising to some, few in the private education feel that this is a good thing, preferring to see a strong maintained sector providing a real and positive choice for parents.

Yet government seems intent on denigrating the state education system, with the recent "U-turn" on the EBacc just one example of avoidable turmoil. There's rarely a day without news of further cuts in the public sector as austerity measures bite deeper and the country's schools are experiencing this as much as anyone. Parents feel this uncertainty and if they can afford it, will turn to private schools as a sanctuary of proven achievement.

Maria Hutchings is just doing what anyone would logically do – looking for the best she can get for her family in the circumstances. There are many maintained schools that would also give young Hutchings a good shot at a medical career, but access isn't universal and parents recognise this, resulting in desperately inflated house prices in good school catchments. Interestingly, such a premium would easily pay the average private school day fee of £9,000 per year.

Private schools in the UK are world-class by any measure and government would be wise to see what they get right. So far, they've just scratched at the surface and limited their exploration to academy sponsorship, which many in the sector don't see as a moral imperative. But private schools would readily support an expansion of the independent/state school partnerships that currently work well in some areas.

One facet of that could be a co-ordinated scheme to support the brightest in local state schools in preparing for top universites and careers. Private schools are after all the only real repository of that expertise in the country, so why not use it? Then the choices for parents like Maria Hutchings would be less clear cut and even Mr Miliband might be more convinced that private schools are worth their place in the educational fabric of the country.

Neil Roskilly is chief executive of the Independent Schools Association and board member of the Independent Schools Council.

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