Impact of private schools on equality is neutral, says Paterson
Apr 28, 2011 No Comments
Independent schools have no impact either way on social inequality in Scotland, according to leading educationalist Professor Lindsay Paterson.
Speaking at the Scottish Council of Independent Schools Annual General Meeting today, the Professor of Educational Policy at Edinburgh University said that the existence of private schools does not improve attainment in the education system as a whole, but nor does it harm it.
Delivering a speech at the AGM in Edinburgh entitled ‘What are independent schools for?’, Paterson said:
“There are two kinds of questions for the policy of government in so far as it is concerned with the overall academic wellbeing of society. The first is whether the very existence of independent schools improves the academic attainment of the education system as a whole.
“On the whole the conclusion is that there is no such effect either way. It neither improves the overall attainment nor impairs it, despite claims on both sides of that rather heated argument.”
Two contradictory bodies of evidence exist on the impact of private schools on the education system as a whole, the professor said. One body of research shows that the higher attainment of such schools is down to the fact that their pupils’ parents tend to be well educated. The other suggests that pupils in such schools perform better, but this is offset by the impact on the state schools that these students would have otherwise attended. However, both of these arguments reach the same conclusion Paterson argued: that the impact of private schools on the overall standard of education in a country is neutral.
“There is a body of evidence that suggests that the indisputably higher attainment of independent schools is explained by the social composition of the students. In other words, it is the effect of the kind of parents that send their children there rather than the schools themselves,” he said.
“But from the point of view of society as a whole the conclusion is that in the absence of the independent schools these parents would probably have exercised much the same influence in other ways.”
The professor added: “Contradicting that first body of evidence – but leading I think to much the same conclusion - is the research that shows that academically selective schools, whether independent or not, are highly effective, adding to the student’s attainment beyond what these students would have achieved if they had attended schools that were not academically selective.
“But such gains in attainment for students attending selective schools tend in selective systems to be offset by the harm to attainment of students who attend the non-academic parts of selective systems, who achieve less than they would have done if they attended schools that were not academically selective. So the overall effect is neutral.”
He added: “Now notice that none of this research shows that the existence of independent schools actually harms attainment in the system as a whole. Claims to the contrary are simply rhetoric, they are never based on actual evidence.”
While much of the difference in attainment between private schools and state schools can be explained by the pupils’ parents, Paterson said, the passing on of educational advantage would happen whether independent schools existed or not.
“But the main point to say about the parental effect on attainment is to reiterate that it would happen whether or not independent schools existed or not. The existence of independent schools does not make social inequality worse, but they don’t help it either – but then neither do comprehensive schools. Basically schools can’t solve problems in society, whether they’re independent, selective, local authority or anything.”
He added: “From the point of view of society as a whole, the fact that independent schools might be one of the ways in which well educated parents pass on their education to their children, is no more a reason for abolishing independent schools than it would be for abolishing books.”
Given the neutral impact on equality, Paterson argued, the best justification for the existence of independent schools is their tradition of liberal education.
“My main conclusion is that the most socially secure goal for independent schools is as embodiments of a tradition. Of a tradition of liberal learning that has given us not only its own intrinsic richness but also given us the questions about social purpose and about true ethical responsibility over which the liberally educated must never stop anguishing.”