As a teacher entering the state schools sector in 2011, I held onto a mantra which I picked up on my PGCE: “Every child matters”.
A simple, yet powerful, government statement that had a clear aim: to lift every student, to ensure every voice was heard and to meet every lofty aspiration.
I teach in a tough, brilliant inner-city London school and have always been driven by this principle.
However, like many government slogans, I quickly understood that it wasn’t as simple as it seemed: to paraphrase George Orwell, it’s more along the lines of “Every child matters but some children matter more than others”.
In other words, it depends where the child is educated.
When pupils begin their lives in the sprawling grounds of Dulwich College or Eton, they have access to more enriching extra-curricular experiences, the most prestigious universities and, ultimately, the positions of power within the workforce in a way that state schools like the one I teach in struggle to match.
By way of example, students from private schools achieve 8 percentage points higher in their A-Levels and 11 percentage points higher in ‘facilitating’ A-level subjects.
Students entering university from the private sector have a 10 per cent higher chance of entering a ‘prestigious’ university. With a teacher to student ratio that is often half that of state schools like mine, it’s easy to see the power of small class sizes on attainment.
Moving into the world of work, state schools students start on the back foot as soon as they leave university: by age 25, their wages are 10 percent lower than students with equivalent grades graduating from private schools – with students from private schools taking on managerial roles at a higher rate.
So why don’t we teachers in state schools just step up and ensure our students compete for better positions?
Well, there’s a few problems with this argument. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, real term spending per pupil has been cut by 8 per cent over the last 10 years and spending on essential childrens’ services within councils has fallen by a staggering 57 per cent.
The attainment ‘gap’ that has developed between the state and private education sectors is really a chasm. Private schools have three times more to spend on students on average.
I can only imagine where some of my most inspiring students could go in life with the £17,000 that is allocated to students attending some of the most elite schools.
Instead, state schools do their utmost to get students to exceed their potential with about £5,000.
In the 2018-19 budget, the capital expenditure for schools was reduced by 41 per cent. In reality, it means more leaking roofs, mould and faulty electrics.
According to the BBC, a school in the West Midlands had “300 holes in its roof” in 2018 – hardly an inspiring environment where students can excel.
Juxtapose that startling thought against another: Eton has committed £25 million to building a new sports facility. Eton has daily access to many sports pitches, swimming pools, fully stocked gymnasiums, boat houses, a production suite, a concert hall, theatres etc.
Although Eton is, of course, the poster child for privilege among private schools, it remains the case that on average private schools have access to significantly greater resources than those used by 93 per cent of families – and so can afford better buildings, more renovations, better facilities.
Read this sobering blog from state school teacher David Anderson about a private school near his own. To take just one line:
“We have one sports hall with a small dance studio, they have a state of the art sports centre which houses a six-lane 25m swimming pool, a 62-station fitness studio, three squash courts, a gymnasium, two dance studios, a large hospitality suite, and a six-court sports hall.”
From my own experience, most state schools that I’ve worked in are considered to be special if they have just one of these facilities – even then, they may require the school to sell off land to raise funds.
The majority of state schools, and the staff in them, do an excellent job. However, it’s misleading to say that the dominance of private school pupils in many walks of life is a problem that can be solved if we in the state sector just “step up”.
We’re fighting with a hand tied behind our backs.
To argue otherwise is disingenuous, and a ruse to distract from the real issue, which is that the private school sector continues to woefully fail to aid social mobility in a nationally meaningful way. Meanwhile, state school efforts to do so are hindered, in part by their existence.
In England, unlike much of the rest of Europe where private schools aren’t so influential, the ideal of meritocracy is not being realised.
There’s another point here: the impact this set-up has on myself and other state school teachers. We can be left demoralised as we see our hard work and dedication to the students being undermined by the inherent privilege that comes with private education.
The lessons we teach the students outside of the classroom about fairness, equality and the nobility of hard work seem empty when the students enter a system which appears to some degree to be rigged against us.
All of which leaves us with a question: should all teachers take a stand?
As teachers, we hold a belief that we are setting our students up with skills and knowledge to take them into the career of their dreams and set them up with a future that can take them anywhere. Nothing should be in their way.
But the unequal English schools system – which many state teachers largely accept or feel they can’t do anything about – means our pupils are undeniably more likely to be beaten to top opportunities by their more privileged counterparts educated in the private sector.
As teachers, it seems odd not to speak out on the fact the private-state system we have is harming our students – particularly our most vulnerable students with dreams but little confidence.
As teachers, we should educate ourselves and be aware of the disparity within our sector. Go and read the statistics, such as these here.
As teachers, we should join the debate and add our voices to the growing calls for much greater parity between the private and state sectors – in funding, surroundings, admissions and staffing.
And what about the government? As a state school teacher, it’s my wish that ministers commit to significantly reforming the private sector and help these schools be open to everyone.
As the government itself says, every child matters.
Chris has been teaching at inner-city schools since qualifying as a teacher in 2012. He works with vulnerable young people to help reduce exclusions and engage families. He is a head of year.