A difficult problem but we’d really better try and find a solution

Disturbing news about social mobility in the UK. To he point that something really must be done:

Well-off parents create a “glass floor” for their less academically inclined children ensuring they “hoard the best opportunities” over poorer peers, a study has suggested.

Children from wealthier families but with less academic ability are 35% more likely to become high earners than their more gifted counterparts from poor families, according to findings from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Clearly something just must be done. The report itself is here and commenting upon it we get:

Study author Dr Abigail McKnight from the London School of Economics said: “The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

“Children from less advantaged families who show high potential at age five are struggling to convert this potential into later labour market success.”

“Schools could do much more to help children from less advantaged families build on high early potential.”

Difficult to know what to do really. Perhaps some system could be devised whereby we identified those bright but poor children and then gave them the academic, specialist, education which would enable them to make the best use of those talents? Would it be too, too, odd to suggest that they might even be sent to separate schools?

This will put the cat among the pigeons

Disturbing findings for a central tenet of the prevailing left wing educational ideology:

Teenagers facing the ire of parents over their exam results may have found the perfect excuse after a new study concluded that exam success is largely inherited.
Scientists at King’s College London discovered that up to 65 per cent of the difference in pupil’s GCSEs grades was down to genetics.
Previous research found that genetics could influence core subjects like English, mathematics and science but it now appears that they also play the same role in humanities, languages and art.
It suggests that if parents have struggled to draw, learn a second language or understand algebra, their children are also likely to find those subjects difficult.

For that prevailing ideology is that it is entirely the environment and education itself which determine such things. Danny Dorling once put it as anyone could grow up to be professor of social geography at Sheffield University: something which prompted us to comment that obviously anyone had. The implications of this blank slate idea being that differences in outcome must be due to differences in access to resources. Thus poor people do badly because they are poor, deprived even simply be inequality.

That 65% of academic success (to the point that passing exams is that success) blows rather a hole in this idea.

We should not, of course, immediately lurch over into the errors of social darwinism though. For this is just a restatement of what should be blindingly obvious about a mammalian species. There are indeed mutations, there’s a shuffling of the genes in every generation. We should therefore be assuming that there will be variance other than simple and direct inheritance of intelligence, just as with any other genetically determined characteristic. Thus all should have access to the same opportunities but we just shouldn’t be surprised when outcomes are not equal.

Regulating away Britain’s best teachers

The latest report from The Sutton Trust (pdf) looks at a topic it last visited in 2003: how the backgrounds of state school teachers compare to those of independent school teachers. Its finding is that there is still a significant difference between the proportion of teachers at state and independent schools that have studied at the UK’s best universities. Independent school teachers were also found to be the most likely to have a degree in the main subject that they teach.

Here is the percentage of all teachers who attended a Russel Group University, by post-A level qualification:



Most people would expect this result. But what is more surprising, yet garners less attention, is that the heavily-regulated environment of state education hinders its flexibility to hire the same, or better, quality of teachers as independent schools.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of formal requirements for teachers entering the independent sector actually encourages, rather than discourages, applications from graduates of some of the UK’s leading universities, because top applicants wish to enter the teaching sector immediately, rather than pursuing further qualifications.

State schools in England, Wales and Scotland are required to be registered with the NCTL and their General Teaching Councils, respectively. Private schools are free of this requirement and can hire applicants with specialist subject knowledge that want to teach soon after they leave their field of expertise.

In independent schools, teachers are not required to have Qualified Teacher Status, which, according to Elliott Lockhart’s 2010 survey “has led some to portray teachers in the independent sector as unregulated, unaccountable and lacking the necessary professional preparation that would make them fit to teach.”

As we know from the report and our general experience of the private education market, this is far from the case and actually strengthens the choice of employees that independent schools benefit from. For Scotland, this is particularly concerning as we are about to enact a law (see a recent Telegraph article about it here) making independent schools subject to the same requirements as state schools. So we would practically have no schools not subject to these restrictions.

Right now Scottish independent schools, like is the case in all of the UK’s constituent parts, take advantage of teachers registered outside of Scotland and this legislation would prevent that. On top of this, the Scottish government also doesn’t engage with Teach First; a programme that is injecting fresh talent into schools in England and Wales and is one of the reasons, judging by the teacher background metric, that state schools have been catching up with independent schools in the last 12 years.

Scottish politicians should reject the Education (Scotland) Bill as private schools are the perfect testing ground for trying out what works and doesn’t work. Subjecting them to the same rules as state schools will impede progress and diminish their autonomy – they’re independent for a reason.

School choice for Scotland

Nevada has become the first state in the US to enact a law making school choice universal. This is a groundbreaking example for other countries mildly experimenting with school choice. Adopting something similar in the UK context is an especially interesting idea.

It works through an education savings account (ESA) in which the state deposits what it would averagely expend educating a child under the state system. Parents can use this fund for everything from school fees to private tuition – the choice offered in educational services being as wide-ranging and high-quality as individuals demand. And the catchment allocation of pupils to schools they don’t want to attend is a thing of the past.

Notably, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, a feature that makes this approach particularly attractive. It is the only choice model to date that puts downward pressure on prices. Parents consider not only the quality of education service they receive, but the cost, since they can save unused funds for future education expenses.

Scotland, with roughly double the population size of Nevada and a completely devolved education system, could technically do something similar. Not least because it’s an idea that people of all political ideologies seem to be supportive of (see my previous post), but there is no freedom of movement in the education system – something that is neither fair on those trapped in the postcode of poorer schools nor an efficient way of driving up standards.

Remarkably many UK private schools at the cheaper end of the spectrum are running at a lower cost than state schools. Take a look at a 2011 paper (pdf) by James Croft that breaks down the cost of state and private sector schools, controlling for expenditures particular to each. Given that profit-making schools can achieve better outcomes for less money, the state handing back the cost of a child’s ‘free’ education would enable people to attend a private school who previously couldn’t afford it.

41% operate on fee levels less than, or on a par with, the national average per pupil funding in the state-maintained sector. On average, fees are approximately £7,500 annually. Fees at the more accessible end of the spectrum attract a high proportion of first-time buyers of independent education.

The best education policy currently on offer in Scotland is detailed in the Scottish Conservatives’ 2016 Holyrood election manifesto (pdf) which promises school vouchers. But realistically, 60% of Scottish people voting next year are planning to support the SNP. There’s just no avoiding for now that Scottish politicians will churn out yet more legislation from our unicameral conveyor belt to undermine independent schools’ autonomy and unintentionally halt our education system’s advancement.

Take the Education (Scotland) Bill 2015 (pdf), which I have highlighted in a recent post for an unreasoned section that attempts to outlaw inequality in state schools – if it’s successfully implemented teachers not registered with Scotland’s General Teaching Council will be barred from teaching.This will massively limit what expert teaching Scottish pupils are exposed to. Meanwhile looms the threat that charitable status, and therefore up to 80% tax relief, will be removed from private schools, affecting hundreds of bursaries for disadvantaged children.

Interference with the better-performing independent schools and misdirected moves in state sector has created an environment in which it is impossible for an education market with school choice and low-cost private schools to emerge. Until we take steps in the right direction, the transience of politics will prove to be either a blessing or a curse.

So student loans seem to be working as a policy then

Some will no doubt decry this finding as evidence of the increasing commercialisation of society, the death of all that is good and holy. We would respond that this is actually the point of having student loans:

The first students to graduate since the imposition of £9,000 annual tuition fees are more focused on securing a well-paid job than their predecessors to pay off their higher levels of debt, according to a major survey of post-university employment.

The survey of 18,000 final year students at 30 universities reported a record proportion had started researching career paths as early as their first year of studies, and more of them undertook work experience to improve their chances of getting a good job after graduation.

The survey found the average level of debt by this summer’s graduates had ballooned to £30,000, compared with averages of £20,000 in 2014 and 2013.

The truth being that university is both enjoyable and highly enriching. To the point that, assuming one has taken the right sort of course, lifetime earnings are some hundreds of thousands of pounds higher for those who have a degree than for those who do not. Thus the major beneficiaries of a university education are those who get one: so why shouldn’t they be the ones paying for one?

But while that is true that’s not really the point of student loans rather than grants. The real point being that a university education is an expensive thing to provide. We’d rather thus encourage people to go and make use of that expensive asset that they’ve just acquired. Thus recent graduates looking for well paid jobs isn’t a fault of the system, it’s the major darn point.

That is, that recent graduates are looking for those better paid jobs as a result of having student debt shows that the system of financing degrees by debt is working.