Comprehensive advantage

Or why state schools actually provide a better education than private schools

This week, the front page of the Times newspaper declared (in horror): “privately educated to lose places at Oxbridge.” As Sam Freedman has subsequently pointed out, the headline here implies that privately educated students have some pre-ordained right to places at our most prestigious and elite universities, and should be up in arms about “normal” state educated children coming along to take away the places that are rightfully theirs.

This sort of stuff makes me furious!

As many of you will know, I am myself privately educated, and I went to Oxford to study English. One of the unresolved questions in my life is whether I would have got my place at Oxford if I had attended the local comprehensive, instead of being a scholarship boy at a competitive, selective, all-boys school with a long-established and well-designed Oxbridge preparation programme. Almost half of my A-level English Literature class in Year 13 successfully gained places at Oxford or Cambridge – it was “expected.” Was it my natural ability, work ethic and enthusiasm for reading and writing that got me in – or was is the advantage of a system loaded to get students from certain schools into certain universities?

I will never know the answer to that question, but one of my personal missions as teacher and Headteacher is to ensure that students from the state schools I work in recognise that they have just as much right to places at our most prestigious universities and top careers as anybody else. I want to make sure that the playing field is levelled wherever possible, so that those without privilege have equal access to the opportunities that those with privilege take for granted.

Over my 25 years working in mixed state comprehensive schools across the East Midlands and the South West, it has also become abundantly clear to me that a state education is actually superior to a private one. Not necessarily in terms of resources – private schools are cash-rich. Mine had two theatres and its own sailing club, for example; most state schools can’t compete with that. But an education in a comprehensive school gives you something that a private school can’t: the understanding of people who come from a different background to you.

At Churchill, we have students from across the whole range of ability, across a wide range of backgrounds, with different needs, family backgrounds, identities, enthusiasms and interests. Some of our students come from rich, privileged backgrounds; some live in poverty. We are a rich, diverse community. I never had that at my school – I had no idea about how people different to me lived their lives. And that meant that, although I knew I lot about Jane Austen, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, I wasn’t really that well educated – because I didn’t really understand people who weren’t like me. That part of my education didn’t begin until I trained as a teacher, age 22, in a deprived area of north Nottinghamshire, in a state comprehensive school.

And, more than that, the evidence shows that a comprehensive system actually provides a better level of academic preparation. A landmark report by the HEFCE showed that state school students with the same A-level grades as their private school counterparts went on to get better degrees at the end of university. Something about a state school education prepares students to be more successful when they move on to higher education than those from the privileged private sector. Maybe it’s the inclusion and diversity of their education that gives them the edge to be more flexible, to have empathy, and to work better with a greater variety of people?

It is clear to me, having been educated in the private sector and worked for two and a half decades in the state sector, that students get a better all-round education in state schools than they do in private ones. I have three children myself – my youngest is just finishing primary, and my eldest is in Year 11. They all go to state schools. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

New College, Oxford

IMG_2456

New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

new_college_quad

New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.