When Tatler publishes a list of the top state schools, you know the gap is closing

February 7, 2014

Michael Gove gave a speech this week in which he said that he wanted to break down the Berlin wall between state schools and independent schools. Slightly tired cliché aside, it’s worth noting what he said, and the reaction it generated. Chief amongst the latter was a tidal wave of “how dare the Secretary of State say state schools aren’t as good as independent schools, there’s no comparison, we have less money and more difficult pupils and don’t select and anyway do far better, what does he know?”  Fiona Millar, who I appeared alongside on The World Tonight, appeared to question in at least semi seriousness whether the Secretary of State had actually ever visited a state school.

But this misrepresents the Secretary of State’s argument. At the heart of the speech was a paean of praise to the state system, accompanied by a long list of state schools who in his opinion are matching, or exceeding, independent schools. Indeed, rather than wanting to do down state schools, Gove was clear: “My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee paying independent”. If that ambition was realised, then there would be no need for parents to pay private school fees, and the independent sector would collapse overnight. This is stirring rhetoric, worthy of the Revolutionary Socialist party!

As Lionel Shriver almost wrote, we need to talk about money. Westminster school was set up in 1179, has educated seven Prime Ministers, and costs £22,500 a year (about £33,000 to board). It is an exceptional school. But not – importantly – typical.  According to the ISC Annual Census 2013, the average fee at a day private school is £11,500 (£13,500 in London). Average funding at state schools is closer to £5,000 (though worth noting that in some London authorities, once pupil premium and other grants are added in, that it can be almost £9,000). So yes, funding is less in the state sector. State schools are never going to compete with most private schools in terms of facilities. But the whole point of the speech was precisely to show that many state schools continue to show what amazing things can be done, with less money and a more diverse intake than their private peers. It’s about high quality teaching, an uncompromising ethos, and an attitude that all can succeed, regardless of background. I have been to many schools which show that, and it’s an inspiring experience. If greater co-operation and sharing of expertise between the state and independent sector – with both learning from each other –  can lead to more children benefiting from that experience, then that is indeed a noble goal.

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