Home Opinion “Here's why Covid will worsen the gap between private and state schools”

“Here’s why Covid will worsen the gap between private and state schools”

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Lewis Radstone-Stubbs

Covid-19 has shaken the world. No institution was prepared and no one can honestly say that they know how the next few months and years will play out. 

The pandemic has brought a temporary end to public life and it has been announced that schools across Britain are to close indefinitely, with education secretary Gavin Williamson also revealing end of year exams will not take place.

Caught up in the middle of Britain’s response is a cohort of students, students for whom every lesson is critical. Some making progress in key stage 3 and some who have been preparing for final year exams which will determine if and where they go for further and higher education.

This worries me. I am an advocate and lover of the state school system, both idealistically and pragmatically. I think the level of teaching is excellent and it provides a foundational knowledge of society fundamental for a well-rounded child. Both my parents teach in the state sector.

I grew up in south east London and attended Thomas Tallis comprehensive school, an incredible, inclusive institution that epitomises the values of a successful state education. It is surrounded by private and state schools. Some politicians might have regarded my school as a ‘bog standard comprehensive’, and for many of my mates’ parents, it was considered too big a risk. 

It was seeing this decision play out in between primary and secondary school that instigated my opposition to a system that can differentiate children based on an ability to pay. 

Now I’m concerned by the impact of coronavirus on this already unfair landscape. Privately educated students benefit from an inherently unequal system; now, a period of remote learning outside of the classroom will further entrench this, with the very ability to be educated now a privilege only afforded to those able to pay.

Factors in this problem are: remote learning, the ratio of teacher to students and the problem of predicted grades. 

Remote learning

One of the reasons parents pay for their children to attend private school is the smaller student: teacher ratio, in comparison to state comprehensives. With central government cuts to education, the average size of state school classes has risen year on year for the past four years, with many in classes of up to 35 students. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has noted that “class sizes have increased because schools have had no alternative other than to reduce the number of staff they employ at the same time as pupil numbers are rising”.

This is not an issue within the private sector, where there are far fewer students for every teacher. As such teachers are able to give more time to each individual student. With schools closing and a new reliance on remote, home learning, this advantage will grow considerably.

Rather than addressing a whole class, private school teachers will be able to offer a more tailored service, interacting with each student personally. Imagine a course being taught remotely to a class of 35, and now imagine that the class is instead made up of 12 to 15 students. This inequality is supported by the results of a survey conducted by TeacherTapp, quoted in The Economist. From 6,000 teachers in Britain, only 40 per cent of those in state schools said they were able to broadcast a video lesson, compared with 69 per cent of teachers in independent schools. 

The next few months could see some students rocket forward, while others can only tread water.  

Predicted grades

Finally, the cancellation of summer exams has fuelled rumours that predicted grades will instead be used to determine students’ fate. Predicted grades are an integral part of the university application process; they give an estimated idea of what a student will achieve and thus enable universities to offer places on their courses to students whose predicted grades meet their requirements. But evidence shows that for the majority of students, predicted grades are over estimated, with the upper end of possible attainment given.

However, for an important minority, the opposite is true. According to The Sutton Trust’s report ‘Rules of the Game’, each year thousands of disadvantaged, high-achieving students have their grades underpredicted. The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, has warned predicted grades are wrong “in the vast majority of cases” and disadvantaged students have “lost out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions”.

Now in the face of coronavirus, John Jerrim, professor at UCL’s Institute of Education, has said the national reference test – which is sat by about 14,000 pupils each year – should be used to validate English and maths GCSE grades. He says this could safeguard against disadvantaged pupils being awarded lower grades than their more advantaged peers.

If the government wishes to back up its rhetoric on social mobility, it must think hard and not use the normal predicted grades system, this summer.  Another answer must be found on how to allocate next year’s university places.

Until yesterday, IGCSEs were also scheduled to take place as normal this summer. The IGCSE is largely based on the normal GCSE and it also has a corresponding A-Level equivalent, with content that is slightly adapted for an internationally focused student-body. It is exam based with the school choosing which exam board to use. Cambridge Assessment exam board is the preeminent provider and offers over 70 subjects, including 30 languages. 

It is vitally important to note that five years ago the UK government rejected the use of any IGCSEs in state schools; however, the country’s most exclusive and expensive private schools all opt for the programme, in part to attract an international student base.

For the last few weeks, IGCSE exam boards had stated that all summer exams for their privately educated cohort would be going ahead. This would have presented a clear and damaging injustice: state school students would not have been able to take their GCSEs and A-Levels this summer, but private school students may well have. 

Reassuringly, following public pressure, Cambridge Assessment and other IGCSE exam boards have last night announced that they are to be cancelled too; however, this is certainly an issue that could pose concerns in the coming year and will need to be monitored closely. 

Be it remote learning or predicted grades, the effect of coronavirus could significantly damage the outcomes of talented, poorer students and increase the unjust advantage handed to those who are wealthy enough to afford a private education.

Lewis Radstone-Stubbs is a policy advisor in the civil service. He has also worked in the charity sector and as a political consultant. A version of this article first appeared on the blog 99th Percent here.

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