Private schools aren’t doing as well as right-wingers like to think


3:11 pm - September 11th 2011

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contribution by Rob Cowen

At the end of August each year there’s one piece of news we can rely upon: GCSE results have improved for a record nth year, therefore exams must be getting easier.

However, a new analysis of official statistics demonstrates that this media narrative is telling only half of the story.

If GCSEs really are getting easier, you would expect a uniform improvement in year-on-year results across all sectors. However, in recent years there has been a little-reported difference between state schools and fee-paying independent schools.

For the last few years, while GCSE results in Britain’s state schools have continued their long trend of annual improvement, results from schools in the independent sector have declined. Between 2007 and 2011, the proportion of GCSEs graded at A* to C in independent schools fell by 0.4 percentage points, while over the same period comprehensives and academies saw a rise of 8.2 percentage points.

The graphs below show the year-on-year change in the number of GCSEs awarded grades A* to A and grades A* to C.

It is clear that for the last two cohorts of GCSE students, independent schools have been getting progressively worse at providing them with qualifications, while state schools have made consistent improvements each year.

Since state schools educate 93% of our children, their results dominate the perpetually-improving combined national statistics, obscuring the fact that the performance of private schools is declining.

So what do these statistics mean for the annual “exams are getting easier” debate? There are three possible scenarios:
1) Exams are getting easier. If this is true, something is going very wrong in independent schools that is causing their students to get worse results from easier exams.
2) Exams are consistently challenging. In this case state schools are, on average, improving their students’ results, while independent schools are declining.
3) Exams are getting harder. Independent schools are maintaining a constant level of performance, while state schools are managing to get better results from harder exams.

Whichever of these scenarios is true the data shows that, relative to independent schools, state schools are improving.

This improvement isn’t necessarily consistent across the board and nor is it grounds for complacency; despite the gap closing over recent years, independent schools, selecting children according to both their ability and their wealth, continue to outperform state schools by over 30 percentage points.

However, at a time of cuts to public spending, this analysis may be interpreted as evidence of the gains from a decade of investment in state education.


Acknowledgement: Henry Stewart at Local Schools Network (Sources: one, two, three, four)

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Reader comments


1. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

Isn’t this like saying Mongolia’s economy is better than Germany’s because it grew at a faster rate last year?

@1 lolwat?

No it is like saying GCSE results aren’t improving in private schools whereas they are in state schools.

Pretty interesting, thanks for posting this.

The right find it hard to swallow that the ‘masses’ could be intelligent enough to gain good GSCEs, A Levels and degrees, the old biological model of intelligence suited them well. After all, ‘you didn’t make it because of the way you were born’, so don’t complain. ‘Social inequality’ – what social inequality?
For me, the pseudo-science of psychometric testing was the 20th century equivalent of religion in the medieval period, – you were poor because that’s the way god intended it to be.
Not all aspects of the enlightenment were all that enlightening.

@2 It does depend on what exactly they’re being compared too, if comps one year got 200 A*’s then the next year got 240 A*’s, but independents got 400 A*’s then 390 A*’s, then the graphs would show a massive increase in state schools and a drop in independents (a bit like those in the OP), but it wouldn’t exactly be something to crow about.

6. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

@2

To what extent is that because there’s more scope for improvement in state schools?

Would you rather your kids went to a school where 80% of students consistently get A and A* grades. Or to a school that whilst it improved 10% in that area last year, still only guides, say, 30% to that level?

I’d be interested to know if there’s been a rise in pupil turnover from private to state schools of late due to the economy, could be a factor.

7. Oliver Hutchings

“at providing them with qualifications”

Providing with qualifications ? education

On an unrelated note, steveb would to do well to reflect on what he was taught about proper nouns in preparation for his GCSE in English.

8. Oliver Hutchings

There was supposed to be a ‘is not equal to’ sign between ‘providing with qualifications’ and ‘education’. Why it became a question mark when I submitted the comment, I’ve no idea.

The point of this analysis piece is not to argue that state schools are better or worse than private schools. As acknowledged in the article, private schools still, on average, achieve much better results than state schools.

The point is that if GCSEs are getting easier, why are the percentages of candidates from private schools achieving C grades or A grades declining? An easier exam is an easier exam, whether it is taken in the private or state sector, and should give an equivalent boost to students in both.

8
Perhaps you could reflect on it.

6
You mean it might be something to do with external factors and not a decline in the intelligence levels of those attending private schools.

Note that I’m going back to the days of “O” levels here, but my recollection was that some independent schools didn’t put as much effort into what are now GCSEs, preferring instead to concentrate on “A” levels. After all, it’s “A” level results that count when getting into Uni.

So a comparison of “A” level results would be at least as interesting, maybe moreso.

My theory is exams haven’t changed and schools haven’t got better, and the better grades are down to the internet. Teachers aren’t the gate keepers to knowledge the way they were fifteen years ago.

13. Oliver Hutchings

8

I have reflected on it and my view has not changed.

9

Sorry if this is just me being a bit thick:

“the number of GCSEs awarded grades A* to A and grades A* to C” Have they counted up the number of GCSEs awarded these grades and then found the percentage change in that number or have they looked at the change in the proportion of GCSEs awarded those grades as opposed to lower grades?

How far is the improvement in state schools’ scores due to their pupils being prodded to take easier subjects, something which has by and large not happened in public schools?

13
I assume that view is that ‘anyone can make a mistake’, it’s a blog and no big deal.

Good points in this article, but I think it’s important to consider that private schools are also popular because they can be a safer and more pleasant environment than inner-city state schools.

I know this isn’t the case for leafy comps in posh areas that the middle class left use, which is why they are the most vocal critics of private schools.

Incidentally, I know several parents in inner East London from working class families who have saved hard to send their children to private schools outside of London as they are worried about their children being pressured into gangs.

So along with considering how to make clear how state and private schools really sit in terms of academic ability, we need to consider how to make state schools safer, and once that’s done, let parents know they are safer.

Does this analysis include iGCSEs? According to the ISC, roughly 11% of entries from the schools they represent in 2010/11 were for iGCSEs. http://www.isc.co.uk/TeachingZone_SectorStatistics.htm There are many independent schools they don’t represent, though.

Going through the linked sources in Mr Cowen’s post, it appears to only be talking about GCSEs and, according to one independent school, the JCQ figures don’t include iGCSEs. (http://www.gdst.net/ourschools/whychooseGDST/academicachievements/Pages/Results.aspx)

Now, we are often told in the media that the top schools find the ordinary GCSE lacks challenge, and they prefer the tough exams. To pick one example, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/7925373.stm If this is true (and I obviously can’t say for certain that it is), you would expect the measured performance to fall in the independent sector. The top performing schools stop being counted because they’re doing iGCSEs, so the mean and median scores fall. If they were still doing GCSEs, the statistics might well be different.

“How far is the improvement in state schools’ scores due to their pupils being prodded to take easier subjects, something which has by and large not happened in public schools?”

What do you regard as an easier subject? Many private schools have General Studies, Media Studies (not as easy as people think) and Business Studies on offer.

14
Where is your evidence ‘by and large’ suggests that you don’t really know.

And what is an ‘easy subject’, how does it differ from a’hard subject’ More importantly, what qualifications/experience do you have to discern the difference?

20. Oliver Hutchings

15

I know it’s no big deal, but normally when people write ‘god’ in place of ‘God’ they are doing it purposefully to make a political point. I don’t mind mistakes but I find that rather annoying.

More on 9

I’m not sure about the easier subjects point. That would account for a *smaller* rise in private sector grades but not a *fall*, assuming all subjects are getting easier by the same amount. Nevertheless, I still think Mr Cowen has a lot to explain (beyond my last, possibly silly, objection):

1)Could it be the result of state schools ‘teaching to the exam’ and exams becoming increasingly suited to that method?

2)Could private schools have been forced to become less selective because of the recession?

3)What is the capacity for random variation? 0.4% isn’t very much.

In any case, people talking about exams getting easier normally mean over the last twenty to forty years (comparing the current exams with O-levels/ the old A-levels) rather than over the last three.

How far is the improvement in state schools’ scores due to their pupils being prodded to take easier subjects, something which has by and large not happened in public schools?
Evidence ?

1)Could it be the result of state schools ‘teaching to the exam’ and exams becoming increasingly suited to that method?
Why not. private schools have saturday tutorials for this purpose.

2)Could private schools have been forced to become less selective because of the recession?
Could be true but personally I would privatise all schools as Tim Brighouse suggested. I would make it compulsory for ALL private schools to take in lower income and SEN students.

Good points in this article, but I think it’s important to consider that private schools are also popular because they can be a safer and more pleasant environment than inner-city state schools.

Excellent point and is the major reason why parents go private. Selectivity. The teachers are usually the same standard; in fact they have the same training. In fact if you have taught in low life area of London, teaching disillusioned brutish yobs, then teaching bright middle class darlings must be a breeze. I cannot imagine the private school teacher having the skills to teach in an inner city comp. Like poor old Starkey it will be a mess.
Privatize and have Romario sitting next to Horatio at Eton.

There have been big concerns recently about the fact that private schools and state schools generally put students in for different exams. On top of that, there have been recent changes (only really affecting private schools) over whether IGCSEs count as GCSEs in the league tables.

Any analysis that looks at changes in grades without considering those factors, or the overall pass rates in states schools compared with private schools, or looking for long term trends, seems to me to be about little more than cherry-picking.

19
Yes, I deliberately spell god with a small ‘g’ because I happen to be an atheist, however, the real mistake was spelling Enlightenment with a small ‘e’. And I accept that you may find my beliefs annoying but it is equally annoying to make a fuss about a small error.
I also find it annoying when the academic achievements of teenagers are belittled by suggesting that exams are easier. This suits the beliefs of a certain political leaning because for so long academic achievement (including degrees) had been the privilege of the few. Being one of the six percent with a first degree is far more elite than being part of thirty six percent and growing.
Certainly over the past few years there has been a steady growth of new subjects, but they haven’t been introduced to ‘make it easy’ for children to learn, it is in response to a changing society and the need for new and different skills which the previous generation didn’t need. Why learn Latin if you aren’t going to study medicine or ancient languages, far better I.T. and media studies. Even the Arts are looked-down on, but they form a massive part of our economy.

There have been big concerns recently about the fact that private schools and state schools generally put students in for different exams. On top of that, there have been recent changes (only really affecting private schools) over whether IGCSEs count as GCSEs in the league tables.
Where is your evidence ?
As for hard and easy exams. Most would say Maths and the sciences are the hard exams. Are they not compulsory for ALL students to take in state schools.
It might be an argument for A levels but GCSE’s

27. Oliver Hutchings

24

It’s still ‘God’ whether you are an atheist or not (imagine that you had a dog called Dog). That’s why I find it annoying. It isn’t a mistake but a deliberate subversion of the rules.

I believe that examinations have got easier, although I accept that it is a subjective question. I’m not trying to belittle the achievements of teenagers, I’m one of them. The problem is that these achievements are hindered by an examinations system that doesn’t allow pupils to develop fully academically. It also presents a practical problem because half the point of an examinations system is to discriminate between the strongest and the weakest candidates and the current system is inadequate in this respect.

oldandrew has possibly hit the nail on the head with the IGCSE point and that was the driving force behind my question about how these percentages have been calculated. A lot of private schools (and particularly the public schools) have moved away from GCSEs in favour of IGCSEs. These, because the government is mad, are not counted on the league tables. This in turn makes some of the best schools look quite bad. Has this been factored in?

@ 18:

“Where is your evidence ‘by and large’ suggests that you don’t really know.”

Well, the numbers of pupils taking English, Maths, two Sciences, a Language and a Humanities subject (which I think we can all agree are fairly rigorous and demanding as GCSEs go) has reduced from around 50% to 22% over the past fourteen years (source: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/katharinebirbalsingh/100102768/how-british-parents-and-their-children-were-duped-by-labours-education-policies/). I can’t find any exact statistics on public schools, but I’ll get back to you on that.

“And what is an ‘easy subject’, how does it differ from a’hard subject’”

An “easy subject” is one which lacks academic rigour compared to other, “harder” subjects. And if you want I’m sure I can find a quotation from the CBI or Universities UK complaining that too many pupils are studying subjects which aren’t rigorous enough to equip them for adult life.

@18

>14
>Where is your evidence ‘by and large’ suggests that you don’t really know.

Possibly here in one of the exhibits:

http://www.jcq.org.uk/attachments/published/1132/GCSE%20Slides.pdf

About page 4 there’s data on subject choice vs type of school.

27
I meant real evidence, not an article taken from a right-wing paper, making the same unsubstantiated claims as yourself.
So, can you advise me which courses have academic rigour and those that don’t or have less than the optimum. Can I also remind you that maths, english and science are compulsory.
28
So, what is your intepretation of the data?
26
At least you are honest enough to state that your assertion that exams are getting easier is a subjective view. And I would ask you to explain why the current examination system doesn’t discern between the strongest and the weakest.

@steveb

Calm down, dear.

You asked for some information, which I pointed you at because the OP had unaccountably left it out.

That is all. You could of course, have read the references rather than go all fandango on us.

32. Leon Wolfeson

@26 – iGCSE’s are not GCSE’s and so should not be counted in *GCSE* league tables. For that matter, I an highly unconvinced of why private schools should be listed in the league tables at all, given their intake has little to do with academic quality.

@Leon, 31

>I an highly unconvinced of why private schools should be listed in the league tables at all, given their intake has little to do with academic quality.

Could you explain how those entrance exams don’t select people of higher intellectual quality? I thought that was supposed to be one of the problems.

25,

It’s not usual to put together evidence for general knowledge (particularly for people who don’t even say “please”). Do you doubt that what I said is the case?

Not sure why you are singling our maths and science.

With regards to 1 and 6 I think it is foolish to even suggest that the possible transfer of private school pupils into the state system could have any significant outcome on the improvement of state school performance! The numbers will be so small that they would be a drop in the ocean when considering that that state schools educate approximately 93% of children.

It is also simplifying the issue to presume that private schools simply offer a better education as the playing field is far from being level when considering the different socio-economic backgrounds children from each sector will ultimately come from. Maybe you should research the use of ‘value-added’ performance scores which take this into consideration.

By reports, fees in non-maintained schools in real terms have become increasingly expensive over the last decade. Also:

The Office of Fair Trading has found that, during the period from 1 March 2001 to June 2003, 50 fee-paying independent schools (each a Participant school, together the Participant schools) infringed the prohibition (the Chapter I prohibition) imposed by section 2(1) of the Competition Act 1998 (the Act) by participating in an agreement and/or concerted practice having as its object the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition in the relevant markets for the provision of educational services. The OFT makes no finding as to the effect of the infringement.
http://www.oft.gov.uk/OFTwork/cartels-and-competition/ca98/decisions/schools

One possible consequence of the reported increasing real cost of school fees is that the entrance exams have become more a test of parental ability to pay than of the intellectual potential of the examination candidates. Besides, why send siblings to fee-paying schools when some maintained schools can achieve better exam results?

As mentioned, two maintained schools within walking distance of where I sit regularly achieve better average A-level results than Eton.

37. Oliver Hutchings

29

I didn’t mean so much admit that *my* view on the subject specifically is subjective but that *any* view on the subject is subjective, because for a start it requires one to define what ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ actually are.

My view is based on a number of things. First, my acquaintance with some of the old A-level papers in the subjects in which I did the new A-levels (German, history, and physics). This is just a series of observations that go to make a general impression. For a start, the old A-levels were all decided on final examinations sat after two years. I, by contrast, did a series of modules that one could resit. I sat an AS (first year) physics paper in my A2 (second) year and went from about 70% to full marks, partly because the questions themselves are that much easier a year later. On the new papers there are a great deal of shorter questions that require only a simple calculation. An old paper that I saw was just a list of much longer questions of which the candidate had to pick a few. These in my experience are much harder to deal with. There were some old GCSE textbooks in the classroom (so this is post O-level but still 1980s/ ’90s) that I used to revise in the *AS* year. They covered many of the same topics as us in the same depth, despite it only being GCSE.

As far as German is concerned, I had an older teacher who gave me translations to do that went back as far as the sixties when he began teaching in a grammar school. First, we do little to no translation for the modern A-levels. This is quite important in itself as translation allows the examiners to tell the candidate exactly what he must write. This stops them avoiding areas of difficult grammar/ vocabulary or getting round them by learning some sentences by rote (e.g. not really understanding the present subjunctive but memorizing an all-purpose sentence that uses it). The translation itself tested a far greater range of grammar/ vocab that was ever expected of me in the examinations I took. This same teacher told me about the old oral exams. They consisted of a discussion with an external examiner on a series of unprepared topics chosen by him on the day. By contrast, most of mine consisted of a discussion with another of my teachers that was recorded. This was on a very specific topic chosen by me. Pretty much all of what I said had been written, corrected, and memorised in advance. The old A-levels in languages required one to sit an examination on several literary texts. This is a component entirely absent from today’s A-levels, although it is still optional and some (mainly private) schools do take it up.

I’m afraid I’ve no observations on history but I do have a bit more on French, which I did to GCSE. As a part of a attempt at self-improvement, I recently bought an old O-level French textbook, which I had intended to use to revive and improve what I learnt at school. Like many of these attempts, it isn’t going well but I’ve noted essentially the same things. The translations (again absent in any modern textbook although they are very useful) are again far more difficult than anything I ever encountered at school.

I put these things to teachers who served throughout the period in which I contend the exams got easier. All of them knew full well what was going on. Most were very able and experienced teachers (shackled, in my opinion, by the current state system) and are well-qualified to judge.

My conclusion from this is that the examination papers of old contained questions that are far harder than anything seen today. This creates two problems: 1)The exams aren’t sufficiently discriminatory. Years ago 10% of candidates got As. That was how an A was defined. Now, 30% get As. What the hell, then, are top universities supposed to do when they are trying to select the very best but are faced with 30% of candidates with the top grade? 2)It is beneficial for the most able pupils to be stretched as far as possible. If the exams are designed so that the top candidates (and worse) get 100% or thereabouts they don’t see what they achieve at their very best.

It is still possible given this, I grant you, that an A today is still an equivalent achievement of an A years ago. By this I mean that even the bottom As of today *could* have still been to the right standard because overall standards have risen. I don’t believe, however, that this is the case. However, the University of Durham has done tests that have measured the ability of A-level students over a long period of time and compared it with their A-level grades:

“Dr Robert Coe of Durham University’s CEM used the International Test of Developed Abilities to compare the actual attainment of pupils from year to year with their paper qualifications. Taking an average of 40 A-level subjects, he found that those scoring 50% on the ITDA test in 1997 would tend to achieve low C grades, but by 2005 were achieving low B grades. Essentially a post- Blair A-level is worth a whole grade less than a pre-Blair A-level”

Here’s the link to the Civitas page if you want to read more http://www.civitas.org.uk/education/standards.php.

I admit there can be no definitive answer to this question and that this is just a collection of observations spanning different periods. However, my own experience, my fairly considerable and recent contact with teaching professionals,, and what would seem to be a strong body of academic opinion suggest that exams have got and are getting easier. Saying that all of this is just a cynically-minded attempt by Daily Mail hacks to belittle the achievements of my generation is rather like saying that the child was cynically trying to undermine the emperor by claiming he was naked. All they are doing is trying to point out something very important that would seem very much to be true.

On a lighter note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGA11A340Ck

34

“With regards to 1 and 6 I think it is foolish to even suggest that the possible transfer of private school pupils into the state system could have any significant outcome on the improvement of state school performance!”

I meant the other way around. Private schools tend to select. If fewer children have parents who can afford the fees they will have to be less picky. I admit this is probably only a tiny factor, I was just trying to come up with as many alternatives as possible to the ‘independent schools aren’t very good’ explanation and Mr Cowen’s theory that this proves exams aren’t getting easier. On that note, Mr Cowen is yet to get back on the IGCSE point, which looks as if it *might* land him in the soup.

There could be any number of causes- one which springs to mind is that a handful of leading public schools who previously had a high proportion of pupils getting A*s & As have now dropped GCSEs- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3022311/More-private-schools-drop-GCSE-for-rigorous-O-level-style-exams.html

The raw figures are open to any number of interpretations beyond the three suggested in the piece.

That is an exceedingly odd way presenting the data , I think it needs a little context

http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6789298/the-grade-inflation-scam.

The real questions are something like

1 Why has the vast increase in funding over years done absolutely no good whatsoever in the state sector
2 What statistical quirk or minor effect at the vertiginously higher level of the state sector has cause them to get worse results in absolute terms
Its an interesting question but hardly the main problem

If you believe exams aren’t dumbed down I suggest you look at this GCSE question and see if you still say that.

Even the regulator Ofqual has admitted there’s a problem with science exams. If you look at physics and biology exams it’s hard to disagree.

The context that this post has unaccountably left out is that in 2010:

29.5% of GCSEs taken in the independent sector were graded A* as against <7.5% in the maintained sector.

60.2% in independent schools were graded A or higher, against less than 23% in state schools.

If you then add in the IGCSEs:

* 95.3% achieved grades A* to C, up from 95.1% in 2009 (nationally, 69.1% were graded A* to C, compared with 67.1% in 2009).
* 93.1% achieved 5 results grades A*-C including Maths and English, and 80.7% achieved 5 results at grades A*-C including Maths, English, a Science and a Modern Foreign Language.
* In 240 schools (42% of schools supplying data), every pupil achieved five or more A*-C grades. In a further 159 schools (a further 27.8% of the total), 95% or more of pupils achieved this standard.

Since they are generally selective, independent schools are bound to do better. But the fact is that they are SO MUCH better that they hardly have any headroom for improvement.

As others have said above, the best public schools no longer take GCSEs, because they are considered academically worthless. Even back when I did my GCSEs (1993-4) we did most of them a year early so that they were out of the way.

I an highly unconvinced of why private schools should be listed in the league tables at all, given their intake has little to do with academic quality

So… the only schools that should be listed on the league tables are grammar schools then? Not many of them left…

31
If you mean stop asking difficult questions, then no, I will not calm down, also attempting to be arrogant doesn’t wash with me, when debaters start to be arrogant and/or plain rude, it normally suggests that their arguments are weak.
37
The subject of ‘history’ is a good case in point, you will find that looking back on old exam papers, those being taught the course, will find the questions reflect what is taught, in the same way, current exam papers reflect the taught course. You will then find it difficult to do the old exam, in the same way that those who did the old exam would find your paper difficult. All teaching for exams is based on the questions within the exam. How could it be any different?
I cannot comment directly about the teacher you spoke to (see my post @4), this has been my point throughout this current debate, its’ very difficult to let go of firmly entrenched ides.

@steveb

‘arrogant and rude’ – yes, that’s what I mean.

like this:

“Where is your evidence ‘by and large’ suggests that you don’t really know.

And what is an ‘easy subject’, how does it differ from a’hard subject’ More importantly, what qualifications/experience do you have to discern the difference?”

and this:

“I meant real evidence, not an article taken from a right-wing paper, making the same unsubstantiated claims as yourself.”

45. the a&e charge nurse

If children are doing better in state school’s I wonder if this “unnoticed revolution” explains why?
http://www.newstatesman.com/200204080005

43
Since when is asking for more rigorous evidence considered to be ‘rude and arrogant’
And when is ‘by and large’ been considered as an acceptable description especially when we are actually debating about academic rigour.
The article you refer to is just another analysis based on the data, from a right-wing paper.
And, asking you to determine terms such as ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ and then for your credentials as to why you can assess this, isn’t rude or arrogant either.

48. Leon Wolfeson

@39 – “measures based on cognitive tests not used for grading show declines or minimal improvements”

Intelligence testing of this sort in most of the west shows this, yes.

The money thrown at schools has indeed had an effect – because it’s been tied into massive amounts of testing. It’s created a system which has got ever-better at teaching to the test.

THAT is why grades have inflated, and other academic measures have dropped down. Because pupils spend less and less time being taught how to learn and practical skills like formal logic, and more and more in rote learning.

“Harder” tests which still involve rote learning for exams are nothing of the sort.
Exams are largely worthless in most areas of the real world, of course. And 30% getting A’s IS quite accurate, trying to go into more definition in looking at how people memorise data is quite worthless.

It takes a few years to “turn around” a school by introducing better ways of teaching memorisation. The student outcomes in terms of income from those schools is no better, it’s a common and nasty trap…

49. Oliver Hutchings

46

It isn’t a question of content. The only difference in content was that the older exams focused on more difficult topics. Languages are the best example. You didn’t need different German to sit the old exams, just better German. If we went back to them, teachers I suppose would start to focus more on these topics but that would be desirable in itself. What do you say to the evidence published by Durham University? Are they also involved in this conspiracy against the working class? I appreciate there may be some who take a delight in maintaining that it was all better in their day, but when so many people closely connected with education (google ‘worthless A-levels’ or something similar) are saying exams are getting easier I think it is best to take note.

Mr Cowen really has to respond to the IGCSE point.

48

“Because pupils spend less and less time being taught how to learn and practical skills like formal logic, and more and more in rote learning.”

Pupils where?

51. Leon Wolfeson

@50 – In the school system, mayhaps?

46,

Requests for evidence should be accompanied by:

a) Precise clarification as to *why* (and what sort of) evidence is needed.
b) A rough explanation of what evidence you are already aware of.
c) The word “please”.

Otherwise, it just looks like an excuse to refuse to believe what one is being told or to waste somebody else’s time. Few things are more annoying in a discussion than the person who considers it a counter-argument to ask questions that can only be answered by writing essays, or even books.

51,

Yes, but which school system?

54. Leon Wolfeson

@53, see 52.

Also, if you’re not talking about the school system in this country, no wonder…

55. the a&e charge nurse

We can’t talk about whether people are more or less intelligent over a 50 year time span – evolutionary change doesn’t happen at such a rate (leaving aside all the difficulties in actually measuring ‘intelligence’).

People of 10, 20 or 50 years ago are the same model as today (more or less) and how well they perform in exams is simply a cultural artifact.

What I have noticed in the state sector is how many parents now augment the classroom with extra tuition, often paid for, but sometimes delivered by themselves.

Motivated parents, a half decent state school and a willingness to work hard will in many cases deliver an excellent set of results – I’m sure this explains part of the reason why the gap might have narrowed?

Interesting, but probably insignificant.

The real issue being that as long as the ruling class are able to use their wealth to opt out of the national school system, said system will never be as carefully nurtured, valued and holistically successful as it ought to be.

57. Leon Wolfeson

@55 – Erm….

Please read up on the Flynn effect. Certainly the effects are driven by phenotype and not genotype, but they’re very real, including the mild reverse seen in the West in the last few decades.

Will you post a response to your story?
http://www.crashbangwallace.com/2011/09/12/its-an-f-for-liberal-conspiracy-and-the-local-schools-network/

What do you have to say about that?

59. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

With regards to 35 I think luring stray dogs to the back of the local spar with bacon and skittles, then interfering with them is foolish.

The numbers will be so small that they would be a drop in the ocean when considering that that state schools educate approximately 93% of children.

Of which, maybe nine or ten percent take GCSE’s in any given year.

Actually the numbers are pretty much in line with

1) Exams are getting easier
2) The “best” private school pupils are moving to the IGCSE

If we take the ISC data which combines both the GCSE and IGCSE numbers

http://www.isc.co.uk/TeachingZone_SectorStatistics.htm#gcse

We find the following
A*A AC
2008 +2.29% +0.65%
2009 +0.75% -0.22%
2010 +0.32% +0.21%
2011 +0.87% -0.24%

Note that the ISC data is not fully a reflection of the independent schools sector, since ISC does not include all schools, but they claim to account for 80%. The average results are higher in the ISC than in the remainder of the independent sector, but as long as the composition is unchanged, the numbers tell us some interesting things.

In 2010 the percentage of IGCSEs (supposedly more difficult than GCSEs) was 11.1% of total entries at 44,000 (compare to 351,644 GCSE entries). In 2011 IGCSEs rose to include 16.7% of total entries at 63.883 (318,382 GCSEs).

The introduction of the IGCSE has two effects. In the data given in the original piece about 12% of candidate/exams for independent schools are “missing” and they represent some of the more able individuals, who would be expected to get A* and As, the decline is very sharp in 2011 since the number of missing exams is around 5% of the total. This explains why the percentage of A*s and As is increasing in the ISC sample when it is falling in the article. However, the addition of the more difficult IGCSE has slowed the rate of improvement.

Secondly the standard of GCSEs is now so low that the incremental effect of lowering standards is fairly questionable in the ISC data – the percentage attaining A*-C is above 95% at independent schools meaning that we are at the boundary – the remaining 5% is the tail. Throw in the impact of the IGCSE and the lack of much movement at the A*-C level is understandable.

Given that ability is roughly normally distributed* we know that a lowering of standards will have differential effects based on the means of the different groups. Even for comprehensives and academies the percentage A* to C is around 70%. But a simple lowering of the standard will have far less of an impact on independent schools than on comprehensives as the population to the right and under the curve is far lower for independent schools.

Conversely if we look at A levels which don’t have the IGCSE problem, we find that the rate of As has risen markedly faster for independent schools as standards are lowered – which is exactly what we would expect as standards fall and we approach the apogee of the independent schools’ distribution (where the cumulative distribution is 50%, we are at 50.8% in 2011):

2002-2011 Increase in A grades
Independent schools: 11.4%
Comprehensives: 5%

* normal distribution:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution

So we can deduce the following:

1. Standards are falling
or
2. Independent schools are performing far better than comprehensives
or
3. Standards are falling and independent schools are performing far better than comprehensives.

I actually lean towards 1.

Oh dear, another lefty fail, what is it with jealousy that blinds people to a bit of research. My son just finished his exams, like ALL of his contemporaries at most top private schools he actually did INTERNATIONAL GCSEs this year and they aren’t reported in these figures. IGCSE’s are entirely exam based ( i.e. no course work marks) they are MUCH harder than standard GCSE’s .

Never mind see if you can find another reason to retain a rubbish education system that has us at 43rd in world league in maths for instance while suffering an acute shortage of STEM skills in the workplace

60
I don’t know if you are aware of internet etiquette, but when you write in higher case it is the equivalent of shouting, just saying.
Btw, I also liked doing exam based courses, I’ve got a photographic short-term memory, I always did well.

Occasionally I slip-up, that comment was for @59

There’s an obvious explanation for this: independent schools are abandoning GCSEs, their brightest students now take exotic IGCSEs on a much more common basis. Thus, because there are fewer ‘good’ public school students taking GCSEs, the average results will drop.

A tad obvious…

62
But isn’t the data given in percentage points not numbers?

Ken @ 60

Bravo.

Comments with that level of sophistication are what make this blog worthwhile.

67. Leon Wolfeson

@60 – Again, keep up Ze Propaganda!

It’s nonsense. No, again, what’s happened is ever-increasing amounts of time are spent teaching for the test rather than teaching the actual subjects.

“If we take the ISC data which combines both the GCSE and IGCSE numbers”

And is therefore meaningless for that comparison, *if* the IGCSE is “harder”. If it’s comparable in the same way, then guess what? Yup, also taught to the test. Strangely enough, smaller class sizes and more regulated environments lead to higher test scores when you teach to the test, and hence private schools do better when it comes to GCSE’s.

I can “deduce” you’re another hack who doesn’t have the first clue what he’s talking about, having not talked to any teachers about the problems in their profession.

\@ 16 ”Incidentally, I know several parents in inner East London from working class families who have saved hard to send their children to private schools outside of London as they are worried about their children being pressured into gangs.”

Of course and all parents worry though a) the media over hype the problem and b) inner city schools need more funding and an effective exclusion policy. They would then be perceived as safer.

However outside of these areas i.e. leafy suburbs etc private education has become a
snob fest. Many of the students that go are average and this is affecting results. Going to private school often means your car salesman father has the dosh to spend. That does not make you a good student.

”@61. libertarian
Oh dear, another lefty fail, what is it with jealousy that blinds people to a bit of research. My son just finished his exams, like ALL of his contemporaries at most top private schools he actually did INTERNATIONAL GCSEs this year and they aren’t reported in these figures. IGCSE’s are entirely exam based ( i.e. no course work marks) they are MUCH harder than standard GCSE’s .

Never mind see if you can find another reason to retain a rubbish education system that has us at 43rd in world league in maths for instance while suffering an acute shortage of STEM skills in the workplace”

There we go , snobbery. Bragging about your son. Why? IGCSEs are not for everyone, I have a 10 O Levels ( harder than IGCSE) and 3 good A Levels from 1980 when they were exam based. I didn’t do a jot.

Despite attempted Tory demolition tactics the UK system remains highly creative with a recognition of Art, Design, IT, Construction etc. These are areas of wealth generation. A string of IGCSEs means not much really.

Strangely enough, smaller class sizes and more regulated environments lead to higher test scores when you teach to the test, and hence private schools do better when it comes to GCSE’s.

In the better public schools at least, there is quite a lot of pride taken in not teaching to the test. We covered our English A-level syllabus (for example) in one year, allowing the additional year to be spent reading off-syllabus material. As I said earlier, we also used to take GCSEs up to a year early, to make space for more useful education.

Leon @67

The combination of the IGCSE and GCSE from the ISC gives us greater comparability than the JCQ numbers – mainly because the JCQ sample is seeing a bias caused by the disappearance of the 63,000+ IGCSE candidates in 2011. If we could isolate the schools that shifted we could compare just on the basis of a stable “independent schools” sample, this is a second best method. The primary point of the article above is to claim that independent schools results are falling. I give evidence that they are not. I also point out that a fall in standards explains why there are differential results between different classes of school. This is to the point of the original article.

You seem to have a bee in your bonnet about teaching to the test. This is undoubtedly a problem, together with teachers doctoring their students results, both probable results of the incentives being given. However, you have neither provided evidence that this is occurring (although I personally believe it is) or how it ties into the main article above.

It is likely that independent schools teach to the test and/or bring out more of their students potential (meaning that they are already closer to maximum potential), as evidenced by academic evidence that independent school children at universities do slightly worse than would be predicted by their A level results in their university results (although correlation is not causation.)

http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/academic/naylor/publications/obes2001.pdf

54,

You appear to have lost all coherence now.

One last time, you appeared to be talking about a school system where there has been an increase in rote-learning. Which country are you talking about?

73. Leon Wolfson

@71 – What’s more likely…that teaching to the test as a result of pressure from successive governments on schools to demonstrate their “worth” basically entirely through testing, or that there’s been a conspiracy between multiple independent exam boards over decades to make tests easier?

Also, you may want to try talking to a few teachers. Remember that *slight* fuss over the SAT’s? Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

@70 – Oh yes, and you can do it in a shorter period of time, too. Right. This isn’t new at top-flight schools where they can afford to throw a LOT of money at education.

74. Leon Wolfson

@72 – Ah right, because you haven’t read even the op and realised that the topic of discussion is the UK schools system, you’re accusing others of being incoherent. I see.

No, no, it can’t be that kids are being told to memorise things rather than being taught to think.

74,

There isn’t a single UK schools system.

I had assumed that you couldn’t possibly mean the English system where you should know there has been an ongoing move away from memorisation for the last ten years. The National Numeracy and Literacy Strategies were abolished; GCSEs were changed to be more about “functional skills”; schools were encouraged to teach PLTS and SEAL; the Every Child Matters agenda introduced large numbers of non-academic targets enforced by OFSTED, and National Curriculum Aims were introduced (you can see them here: http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/uploads/Curriculum%20aims_tcm8-15741.pdf ) in which academic knowledge of any sort has a relatively small place.

It’s hard to see how any school system could have less of an emphasis on memorisation, without actually teaching nothing at all.

73,

Exams have become easier, not by conspiracy, but because the 3 exam boards compete for business by providing easier exams.

75
Good point, I would suggest that because exams have moved away from memorisation it may appear, to those who went through that system, that today’s exam papers are easier, rather than the testing of different skills.
I have always argued that the exams that I did, many years ago, were merely tests of memory, in fact it suited me, for I was able to revise a few days prior to exams and pass them quite easily. Of course, I forgot most of the stuff afterwards.

The solution is dead simple.

Abolish those awful league tables.

76,

I can certainly agree that a lot of exams now test “different skills” instead of testing knowledge and was shocked to find somebody who wasn’t aware of this who was nevertheless telling other people they were out of touch with teachers.

I would suggest that a lot of exams mainly test two skills. One skill is “exam-taking”, and the best way to do well in such exams is to do months and months of practice exam papers. The other skill is comprehension of the type of English used by examiners, which while it may be a genuinely useful skill, it is one that middle class children and children with English as a first language have a huge advantage in and where that is the most important skill measured by an exam then the exam system disadvantages working class kids and kids with English as an additional language.

There are, of course, issues around the explicit teaching and testing of knowledge – it has to be deep knowledge that includes understanding and fluency rather than memorising items on a list – but as a teacher I find these issues much easier to grapple with than the much greater problem of the dumbing-down that occurs when knowledge is replaced with ill-defined, non-existent or unteachable skills.

“According to the latest tranche of examination statistics released by the Department for Education, 53.1% of GCSE candidates in state schools in 2010 managed to get five or more at grade C or above, including Maths and English, compared to only 47.2% at independent school. However, the reason for that is because fewer independent schools entered children for GCSEs in 2010 than ever before – largely because they’ve become so dumbed down as to be virtually worthless. If you factor in IGCSEs – which are closer to old-fashioned O-levels – the pass rate at fee-paying schools climbs to over 90%.”
http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100060295/attainment-gap-between-private-and-state-school-pupils-doubled-under-new-labour/

80. Leon Wolfson

@75 – Ah, so, it’s a conspiracy, then. Right, well, that ends THAT conversation.

80,

Which part of the word “not” confused you?

82. Leon Wolfson

@81 – My bad for actually reading the content of your posts. Tinfoil hat?

@ 80:

Not a conspiracy, more an inevitable result of the way the education system is set up. The government measures schools by how many children there pass exams, so schools want their children to do exams which give them as high a chance as possible of passing. Meanwhile, exam boards are competing to get more schools to choose their exams rather than rival boards’, which, given that schools want their pupils to pass, means making sure that children taking their board’s exams are more likely to pass than children taking other boards’ exams. And how do you make sure that this is the case? Why, by making your exams easier, of course! Naturally there is a limit to this — if your exam board gets a reputation for setting pathetically easy questions, nobody will take your qualifications seriously, and there will be no point in taking them — but it does provide an incentive to make your papers slightly easier than your rivals’, which over time adds up to make exams significantly easier.

84. Leon Wolfson

@83 – If there was no oversight of the exam boards, sure. But there is.

Also, this is arguing that teaching to the test does nothing, and that the drop some schools (especially some private schools) see in achievement from GCSE/A-levels to degrees, where thinking isn’t optional, is an illusion.

The people who do well in the design university modules I teach? Are generally NOT the people with straight A’s. Not coincidence.

I can give you one direct irrefutable example of a subject getting easier, because it happened while I was doing the course.

Back when I was doing AS levels, the arrangement was as follows. You did three modules per year. In the first year, you did Pure 1, Mechanics 1 and Statistics 1. In the second year you did Pure 2, Pure 3 and Mechanics 2. However, after the first year, the exam board re-distributed the content from the three Pure modules into four Core modules, (C1, C2, C3 and C4), however the total number of modules needed remained the same. Most students now do C1, C2, and one of M1 or S1 in first year, then C3 and C4 with M2 or S2 in the second.

In my case, we were allowed to do the C series despite having done the P work, allowing us to spread the work over more modules.

Therefore – while maths is still ‘hard’ (it doesn’t get easier or harder, there is less of it) Besides which, the really clever people still do Further Maths, and cram all that into one year anyway.

79
Nope, you are making the same mistake as several others on this thread, the data is expressed as a percentage and percentages refer to what is, not what is not. So let’s go through the information in your post.-

In 2010, out of all state school pupils who took GCSE, 53.1% got 5 grade C or above.
In 2010 out of all independent school pupils who took GCSE, 47.2% got 5 grade C or above.
It is irrelevant how many people did other courses, the data is a direct like for like comparison.

83
You would then have to show that the reason why independent schools are doing worse than state schools is that they are choosing the more difficult exams and state schools are choosing the easier ones.

This is rubbish- I go to a private school, the reason that the exam results within the private education sector look as if they are declining compare to the state sector is simply due to the fact that THEY DO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT EXAMS WITH COMPLETELY DIFFERENT EXAM BOARDS. I know this because I have been to a state school and many of my friends go to state school. At state schools they take the exams which are the easiest to get good grades, to ensure that the corrupted government doesn’t look as ineffectual.

State school GCSE’s are handed out compared to private school ones.

FURTHER MORE AN EDUCATION IS SOMETHING MORE THAN JUST ACHIEVING GOOD GRADES. IT SHOULD PROVIDE YOU WITH THE SKILLS TO DEAL WITH JOBS AND STRESS.

I don’t enjoy Saturday school, Sunday chapel and having no social life but at least I am able to get up in the morning to go to work unlike many.

88
I don’t know how old you are Claire, or which private school you attend, but your grammar is poor and your entire post is incoherent.
You start with the proposition of ‘This is rubbish’, what is?
Where is the evidence that state schools choose easy exams?
What do you mean by the sentence ‘State school GCE’s are handed out compared to private school ones’ btw there is no apostrophe in GCEs
You contradict yourself by saying you go to a state school but in your opening sentence you say that you attend a private school.
You say you have no social life but it seems that you must spend a considerable amount of time with you friends comparing and contrasting the subjects you study and exams taken.
And to top it all, you get up and go to work.
Very strange post.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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    Private schools aren't doing as well right-wingers like to think http://t.co/0m0cOen

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    Private schools aren’t doing as well as right-wingers like to think | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/m8Mfubg via @libcon

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    Here are some words I wrote recently about whether GCSE exams are getting easier or not. http://t.co/vSqG01z

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    “@libcon: Private schools aren't doing as well right-wingers like to think http://t.co/EwqjT2M” > perhaps they should be nationalised?

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    Here are some words I wrote recently about whether GCSE exams are getting easier or not. http://t.co/vSqG01z

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    Private schools aren't doing as well as right-wingers like to think: http://t.co/7G53eyJ

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    Here are some words I wrote recently about whether GCSE exams are getting easier or not. http://t.co/vSqG01z

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    Private schools are getting worse, state schools better http://t.co/mJRpAfo

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    Private schools aren’t doing as well as right-wingers like to think ~ http://t.co/STnkeIu

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    Private schools aren't doing as well right-wingers like to think http://t.co/0m0cOen

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    By @bobbiecowman RT @libcon: Private schools aren't doing as well as right-wingers like to think http://t.co/A29DUzY

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    Here are some words I wrote recently about whether GCSE exams are getting easier or not. http://t.co/vSqG01z

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    More for the debate that follows than the original article: http://t.co/OHZdEMm and this is a good follow-up: http://t.co/zcUvJrY





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