Simon Hughes is a tosser

#3 in the Is a Tosser series. For his grauniad article Universities must cut private schools intake, says Simon Hughes. Disclaimer: I went to private school, and to Oxford. My son is also at private school [*]. But this article is *not* going to be about my own experience. Meta-disclaimer: in England, it is obligatory for middle-class parents and politicians of all varieties to agonise about education, its funding, and its quality. In the case of politicians, it is strictly required for them to only talk about the quality; they are forbidden from doing anything to improve it [#].


Let us begin with SH quote number 1:

I think my message to the universities is: You have gained quite a lot in the settlement. Yes, you’ve lost lots of state money, but you’ve got another revenue stream that’s going to protect you. You now have to deliver in turn. You cannot expect to go on as you are. It has failed miserably.

This is drivel. Universities have lost monies in the most recent settlements, and they might get it back if they charge the full fees (I don’t pretend to have studied the details, but I’ve chatted to an academic or two). Suggesting that the government has done something favourable for them, for which they are obliged to reciprocate, makes no sense.

And then we come to the non-sequitur “You cannot expect to go on as you are. It has failed miserably” – but what, exactly, has failed? Perhaps it is just too obvious to need spelling out. My best guess is that it is something about the next para: Just over 7.2% of pupils in England attend private schools but make up over a quarter of the intake at the 25 most selective universities, and 46.6% at Oxford.

Err, but aren’t universities supposed to select on the basis of quality, not proportions? No, apparently not:

Every university should… recruit on the basis of no more people coming from the private sector than there are in the public as a whole…

and

…most people in society go to local authority schools, not to private schools, and therefore most people from all universities, including Russell Group universities, should do that

But, that one isn’t going to be a flyer, because most people do believe that selection to the best universities should be on merit (even if we disagree slightly on what “merit” means. And a late-occurring thought: if you think selection should be just based on proportion not on merit, how are you going to select those from the state sector that do get in? Lottery?). Also, if you believe that, then you also believe that just as many people people from A deserve to go to Oxford as people from B (where A in this case is “pick your pet low-education-attainment area of the country with lots of poor people in it”, and B is “your pet leafy middle-class area with good state schools and good A-level results from same”. Like Cambridge, for example). Or, since we’re talking about politicians, you believe that as many bricklayers deserve to be politicians as do lawyers. Etc., etc. etc.. No, SH is going to have to tell some more porkies:

… I don’t believe you have to look to the private sector to give you the quality of exam results… to make up the numbers to fill the places.

Now we’re off to la-la land, because it is certainly true that private schools will get you better exam results (alright: it is *certainly* true that private schools *get* better results, as measured by grades in, say, A-levels (Privately educated children have a far better chance of getting into the most selective universities because their performance at GCSE and A-level outstrips that of pupils in the state sector [1] as the G puts it). Whether they also “value add” is perhaps harder to measure, since there is self-selection. But people certainly believe it, or they wouldn’t be handing over large piles of money). The words I elided above, BTW, were “and ability”; because I think he is deliberately muddying the water by mixing two different concepts, in order to lie to us by confusion.

Mind you, the grauniad will tell you that State school pupils ‘fare better’ at university (and in case you didn’t get the message, they’ll tell you the same thing again (did you spot the subtle change in headline?)). And to be fair, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was true: private schools are indeed better at preparing people, so when that support is removed private pupils with identical grades to public ones are likely to do marginally worse. And universities know that, which is why they make efforts to adjust for the effect.

But the main issue is that all this stupid posturing by the politicians is a cover-up for reality: which is that the real problem is in the state schools (which are under their control) not the universities (which are not). So it is no great surprise to find them dumping on the side that doesn’t spread blame on them. The truth (that is universally acknowledged) is that there are a great many poor quality public schools in the UK (as well as a smaller proportion of good ones), and that the government hasn’t really done a great deal to make them better, at least at educating people (I was looking for a good article I read saying this, but I’ve lost it now, so please accept my apologies for a certain vagueness here).

</rant>.

[Update: as it happens, the school newsletter addresses this:

We support the current meritocratic system of university admissions and reject any suggestions that admissions quotas should be set for different types of school. Universities must be free to select students by ability and suitability and whilst educational background might help contextualise an application it should not itself determine the outcome.

The Perse has nearly 400 years experience [take that, colonials :-) -W] of successfully educating children from all backgrounds to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to capitalise on a university education. Such skills and knowledge cannot be acquired overnight, nor can universities, whose budgets have been cut, be expected to fill gaps in 3 years that have built up over the previous 13 years of schooling. Once the political arguments associated with the tuition fee debate have died down, I hope that common sense will prevail and universities will be left to run their own admissions procedures, whilst government concentrates on driving up educational standards across the primary and secondary age ranges. Meanwhile The Perse will continue to invest in its higher education programme to ensure that all our pupils are well prepared for successful applications to both UK and international universities.

No surprises there -W]

three-tossers

Refs

* [*] Note that in an effort to confuse the ROTW [+], in England “private schools” are actually called “public schools”. I believe this is a relic of the long-ago and far-away times, when anyone of any quality was educated at home by private tutor. Those too poor for this were reduced to sending their children to “public schools”. All this pre-dates state education, of course.
* [+] Rest of the world
* [#] This rule is unwritten, but may be deduced from observation.
* Is it worth it? As the cost of private schools soars, we look at what parents get for their money – Economist, 2008.
* Staying on board In both America and Britain recession has so far done little to dent the demand for private education – Economist again, 2009 (nice quote So why aren’t fees even higher? Sheer embarrassment may be one reason. Non-profit (or charitable) status is hard to defend with a straight face if fees are outrageously out of line. A more likely explanation, though, is that schools’ quality would decline if they simply sold places to the highest bidders. Part of what they offer is the chance to learn with clever classmates, and if fees were too high the pool of brainy potential pupils would become too shallow. Schools with stellar reputations have some room before their fees pass the point at which too few clever children apply.)
* Student Evaluations – Yawn by The Phytophactor.

Comments

  1. #1 Tom Curtis
    2011/01/10

    So if I understand this correctly, Simon Hughes is saying that because government funding has been cut, so that universities will now need to charge larger fees, universities should draw a greater intake from that portion of the population that have either the least ability or willingness to pay fees for education!

  2. #2 Nick Barnes
    2011/01/10

    “Public schools” are generally those private schools which are in HMC.
    State sixth-form and Cambridge, and wouldn’t send my kids private even if I could afford it.

    [HMC = Head Masters Conference, for those not in England. I couldn’t parse your second sentence -W]

  3. #3 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/10

    Eli, being a widely traveled bunny has friends in high oxford like places, and they say that the private schools specialize in preparing their students for the entrance tests and interviews. You money at work. The public schools (Eli si aware of all English traditions, but screw that) The subjects that give a damn about quality compensate to an extent but don’t tell you about that.

    [Yes, preparation for university tests is definitely a part of the process. So any competent university knows about that and ought to try to compensate -W]

    In the US we have the Princeton Review and other cram courses.

  4. #4 NW
    2011/01/10

    Let me get this straight, because I am afraid I don’t understand your wording:

    Taxpayers pay money to the government. This is used to fund private schools, which anyway may attend without paying money.
    Parents also have the option to send their children to public schools, which are not run by the government and require money to attend.

    Are those statements correct?

    [No. The government does not fund private schools; they are funded by fees paid by parents (in general). Private schools often run bursaries for poorer students (as the Economist articles point out, there are several reasons for this: defence against charges of for-the-rich-only; a real pride in many of the schools (they wish to exercise their profession, which is education, as best they can); history; and (if you believe the Economist) a desire to pull in healthy competition to encourage the fee-payers to push harder).

    Perhaps it would have been easier to understand if I didn’t snark: “public” schools (with quotes) are private schools. What you might call public schools (ie, non-fee paying schools, funded instead by the govt through taxation) would generally be called state schools here – W]

  5. #5 carrot eater
    2011/01/10

    What must I do to be called a tosser?

  6. #6 julesberry
    2011/01/11

    When I were at Oxford, at least at my college, they used to take into account not only present performance, but would attempt to spot “potential”. Thus they expected people from rubbish schools to seem less good at the interview/exam stage, and attempted to weight their opinion accordingly, I suppose using some sort of 6th sense. Of course in my case, it was not so mysterious a 6th sense, as I was a girl who wanted to do physics.

    It is a bit alarming how little things have moved on in the last 20 years (since I were that lass). I was expecting that, by now, public schools would only make up a small minority of Oxbridge entrants but it seems to be just the same as when I went there. What has gone wrong?! :-(

    [Arguably (OK: I argue), what has gone wrong is that state schools have failed to improve, and/or politicians have failed to improve them -W]

    There is the question of how far you want to go with the “potential” thing… to what extent does a better education actually make you cleverer, and at what point can a brilliant 18 year old who has been not quite so well educated never catch up to your overeducated son? In relation to that, this paper in Nature (How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language
    ) looks quite interesting… they imply that your brain changes whether you learn to read in child or adulthood.

    [Paywall… -W]

    jules

  7. #7 Powelliphanta
    2011/01/11

    How much better does a given child really do at a private school versus what they would achive at a state school? A difficult question to answer and not one that private schools are particularly interested in addressing. We’ve been thrashing through this for our own kids and have delved into the relevant social sciences literature (such as it is). I can’t easily relocate the papers we found right now, but to summarise..

    1/ Quality of home environment is the most important factor in prediciting educational outcome (are the parents well educated, do they care)

    2/ The quality of home environment for the other kids at the school (how many of those kids also come from well educated families that care, etc) is also very important.

    3/ The quality of teaching at the school itself is of lesser importance but obviously still matters.

    Private schools often do well on points (2) and (3) above. In our case our local state school fails comprehensively on both of them. But by moving a couple of suburbs away we get a state school which is quite the opposite, and with three kids the cost of moving is considerably cheaper than sending them all to private schools.

    [And not only that, you likely get the money back again when you move next time, assuming the school stays good -W]

    For our current local school, once the only families left here are of poorly educated parents who don’t expect anything much from their kids either, just how is the government meant to improve the quality of that school? Easy to snipe about inaction but it’s an intractable problem.

    [I agree that it is a very difficult problem. But it is not intractable. Part of it is the basic structure of the state sector, which makes rewarding good teachers as hard as removing bad ones (of course they also have the problem that removing bad/difficult children is much harder than it is in the private sector). Money is part of it, too. But fixing the education system is beyond the remit of this blog; I’d settle for just getting politicians to address the real problems, rather than fake ones -W]

  8. #8 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/11

    Jules asks: What has gone wrong?! :-(

    Simple, Thatcher.

    First, foreign students, many of whom attend expensive public schools in England, pay full fees. Second, fees are a much larger part of the budget than they used to be in general in England. Third, Oxbridge has always depended on bequests from rich folks, rich folks send their kids to a small number of rich public schools who also admit a few charity cases so they don’t look like a den of idiots. The colleges, if not the university are very aware of all this. Given funding trends this has spread to many places other than Oxford and Cambridge. Then again Eli is just a rabett

    [I don’t believe this. What you’re neglecting is the role of the folks who actually do the admissions / interviews. They don’t want to teach dumb unmotivated rich kids. They want to teach bright motivated kids irrespective of income -W]

  9. #9 Andrew Dodds
    2011/01/11

    Ok, I did the whole working-class-comprehensive-ed-to-Cambridge thing.. and I’d observe that there certainly is an effect; those who came to Cambridge from my sort of background were generally more able. Not a huge shock, really.

    But the idea that the Universities can do a lot to influence this – they already try pretty hard – seems overblown. What are they *meant* to do? Randomly admit working class kids with moderate grades in the hope that they turn out to be rough diamonds? To be honest, it doesn’t help that exams, especially A levels, have been dumbed down, since that also makes it harder to do the sorting.

    Sad thing is, Universities often seem the most meritocratic part of the whole process; there is a whole additional (and apparently unmentionable) problem of what happens after Uni – the whole web of contacts, internships and back doors that see the favored few suddenly emerge at the top without apparently doing much on the way. Something that tuition fees are going to promote even more. I can’t imagine why Cameron and Clegg wouldn’t want to address that.

  10. #10 jules
    2011/01/11

    > [Paywall… -W]

    Yes, that’s why I summarised the paper for you. At least, that’s all this physicist got out of it.
    :-)

  11. #11 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/11

    W you may not believe it but how do you think George Bush got into Yale? Face it there are a large number of third raters who get into top notch places because the family donates a lot of money.

    [I have no experience with the US system. Our royal family is notorious for getting third-rate intellects into Cambridge (at least Oxford didn’t take them, hope I’ve got that right) so maybe your royal family does the same :-))). Slightly more seriously: actually I don’t mind if a few dumb but insanely rich folk pay massively over the odds for their education and subsidise the rest of us -W]

  12. #12 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/11

    Besides they mostly read PPP or the local equivalent

  13. #13 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/12

    But you are equally happy to beat on the schools from the places that don’t get their students in because the rich. How Tolish of you.

    [Not fair, because (a) the fraction of the mega-rich in the category you’re talking of and I’m OKing is small (it would not be OK if the fraction were large; 10% would be large); (b) the schools-effect is still definitely large enough. So the reason state-schools don’t get people in is not because of the mega-rich buying in, I think. I think that is a completely separate question; it doesn’t help to understand the state / private sector fight -W]

  14. #14 Eli Rabett
    2011/01/12

    Fair???

    Here is a hint. There are lots of legacies out there and they are not at all super rich. In the US context admission rates run 2 to 4 times that of ordinary applicants if the parents have been regular donors.

  15. #15 eachran
    2011/01/14

    julesberry

    http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/regional-voices/grammatical-variation/

    So, from where are you if I may ask?

    For the rest you also need to look at it from the thickos point of view. I am a thicko because I didnt go to Oxbridge. In fact a number of my schoolmates (at a grammar school) failed their A levels and went on to become Profs and captains of industry through apprenticeships and HND type stuff.

    I eventually drifted through life picking up this and that here and there : not a bad life.

    Would I have benefitted from an Oxbridge education? Probably not, not even from a connections point of view – I am too much of an anarchist for that.

    Would Oxbridge, including the teaching and research staff, have benefitted from my presence? Almost certainly.

    I suppose you could say that grammar schools in my day were similar to public schools now : but no, I dont think so.

    In the old days it was about talent : now it is about money.

  16. #16 John
    2011/01/16

    Oh a hypocritical lefty eco loon the product of private school and user of the same.

    Now who would have thought it!

    [Someone who thinks, perhaps -W]

  17. #17 jhbwe
    2011/01/18

    “Or, since we’re talking about politicians, you believe that as many bricklayers deserve to be politicians as do lawyers”

    I believe this is called democracy.

    [No. Democracy is where you get to vote for your government. If you believe that “as many bricklayers deserve to be politicians as do lawyers” and that this should be enforced by quotas (which is the argument being made for university admission) that is something orthogonal -W]

    “I don’t mind if a few dumb but insanely rich folk pay massively over the odds for their education and subsidise the rest of us”

    And I believe this is called progressive taxation.

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