Correlation and Causation – why Independent schools are not to blame for the success of their pupils!

Over recent months, there has been a growing stridency in the voice of the Labour party and its fellow travellers about the role of Independent schools in England’s Education system. Using the #AbolishEton, the group, Labour Against Private Schools, hopes to persuade the party’s conference in September to commit a Labour government to their integration into the state system, whilst at the same time stripping fee-paying schools of their ‘privileges’. You can read more of that in this Guardian article of 9 July. The Guardian has been carrying quite a lot of anti-independent school copy on its pages for many years, but when independent think tank studies such as this one by the Sutton Trust continue to report that Britain’s top jobs are still in the hands of a private school elite, it does cause us all to take a deeper look into quite what is going on in this ‘education space’ of ours. And of course, last week in comes Boris Johnson, the 20th Old Etonian to serve as our new Prime Minister, and ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ Q.E.D. it must be true.

It’s certainly true that Eton has been an utterly extraordinary institution for centuries, endowed as a King’s College by Henry VII, attracting the sons of the mighty alongside poor scholars, and yet, within its walls, ensuring that all were treated with great equality, so that its alumni could then ensure that Eton would ‘Esto perpetua’, translating as ‘May it last forever’. With 300 students a year graduating to the very best universities in the world, it should come as no surprise to anyone that its alumni are to be found in positions of influence. Johnson’s cabinet does have 2 other Etonians (his brother Jo and Rees-Mogg Esq.) plus a total 64% of other ministers independently educated. Take a closer look at the England Cricket or Rugby sides, and it is apparent that independent schools more broadly have been developing talent disproportionately more successfully than one might expect of their apparent 7% hold on the country’s population. The BBC summarised the Sutton report in this area well, the graphic below from their report:

My school at 59 years of age, with now circa 100 boys and girls graduating a year from GCSEs/A levels, tracks the success of its former pupils with interest but not forensically, though anecdotally we can certainly see they represent well on departure the qualities of ambition, collegiality and stickability that’s needed later on in life, and their track records subsequently look very encouraging and magnificently diverse. It’s interesting to note that the few of our best footballers that appeared good enough to make it in that sport have had more options than just football, with other sports and higher education seeming more alluring and open as routes. Swap sport for music, drama, the arts, and it’s clear our best have gone on to thrive, build commercial careers, win glittering prizes and awards. Or indeed, stay resolutely academic and reach for University, Doctorates and beyond – CC alumni are there too. In short, the block chain works well – enter Independent Education, gather the academic, social and collaborative skills needed to get on in life, and guess what, you will.

Behind every child to be found in an independent school, and you find a family deeply interested in the school being the right place for their child and getting the best out of them. Throughout my professional career, I have seen successive governments (Labour and Conservative) shift the focus of the state sector from providing a full, broadly facilitated education to one that is only required (and therefore funded) to cover academic subjects in the classroom. As I look at our plans for a new campus to be considered by the RBWM planners at the end of this month, we are clearly not just seeking to cover a narrow academic core. Apart from a rather obvious centre of excellence for regional hockey, the buildings cover all the arts, mathematics, sciences, languages, business, computing and enterprise education we could hope for. Who wouldn’t want their child to have such a set of opportunities? The master blueprint though that’s been allowed has not provided any silver spoons or gold taps – but what it does do is declare unequivocally that ‘all of the various skills and talents that a child might have’ will be nourished here.

And therein lies the heart of the reason why ambitious parents might choose independent education for their children; namely to ensure they have the opportunity to test out their mettle and find their spark. And having chosen to make such an ‘investment’, continuing to hold their attention on the child so that the ‘sparks’ are captured and nourished into the flames of a future ambition. If this is the root of why children succeed, that is, the energy and commitment of their parents and wider family to that success, why don’t the Sutton Trust and others just come out and say that? I’m not blaming the Sutton Trust or others for that matter for being ‘lay journalists’, indeed the founder of the Trust, Sir Peter Lampl actively espouses that the state should fund thousands of place in independent schools in order to “improve educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds and increase social mobility.” The truth is that it is government’s place to make the core decisions on funding, and it hasn’t joined up enough over the past 10 years to make this happen. And here perhaps is why…

Last month, Professor Christopher Ferguson* wrote an excellent article on Bad Data Analysis and Psychologies Replication crisis in Quillette, an aggregating website on ideas help human societies flourish and progress. This triggered a commentary on the same site by Professor April Bleske-Rechek, headlining this Crisis in Psychology, namely the willingness of this new science to sensentationalise weak effects and to bias publications in favour of sales of the ideas in question. She writes “That illness is the conflation of correlation with causation, and the latest research suggests that scientists, and not lay people and the media, are the underlying culprits.Last month, Professor Christopher Ferguson* wrote an excellent article on Bad Data Analysis and Psychologies Replication crisis in Quillette, an aggregating website on ideas help human societies flourish and progress. This triggered a commentary on the same site by Professor April Bleske-Rechek, headlining this Crisis in Psychology, She writes “I believe a related, but perhaps less-recognized, illness plagues psychology and related disciplines (including the health sciences, family studies, sociology, and education). That illness is the conflation of correlation with causation, and the latest research suggests that scientists, and not lay people and the media, are the underlying culprits.

This morning I was listening to Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary and minister in the Blair/Brown Labour government of the noughties. Johnson expressed so clearly that the difference in life expectancy of a boy born in 1950 between North Kensington (where he grew up) and South Kensington is 16 years today. That’s got nothing to do with state or private education, and everything to do with the failure of national government to invest in a joined up way in health, education, welfare and social care. You may recall he was the Minister of State for Universities, and introduced the loans-for-degrees we now have. This has been an amazingly important way of increasing the number of disadvantaged students (on free school meals) from 10% (when student grants existed) to 27% today in 2019 (from 31:00 mins). Any English qualified national can apply to University and receive the funding to attend, with the ‘tax’ on their funding being the requirement to pay back in adult life from the additional earnings as they receive them. Alan Johnson was absolutely clear about what needs to happen if we are to see growing social equality in our country, which is for the Prime Minister to take this requirement for society to provide greater social mobility as the core mission of their premiership and cause the great offices of state to bend to the task. Theresa May expressed this so clearly in her opening speech on entering 10 Downing Street, and was thwarted by the confusion of Brexit.

There is a clear correlation that exists between opportunity and success that follows, and a clear model already in the UK that shows how opportunity can be extended, through the generous funding for all that is needed for education to work. Of course, you could just nationalise our independent schools, cut the funding to the bone and watch our excellence whither. Alternatively, wise government would introduce vouchers that entitle any to spend to acquire the education of their choice, a situation that works for higher education, and now needs to enter lower down too. Those vouchers would inevitably not cover the full cost of the education received, but would provide to the child concerned a funded place. As universities have had to seek additional revenue streams, so have our independent schools too, and this requirement would continue into the future. Where state schools are already good enough, and there are so many that are just that, parents would not need such a voucher. But since such schools cause house prices to be so much higher, entry into an alternative independent school would provide other opportunities for parents to consider.

I’ll close with a ‘nod’ to the chairman of the Independent Schools Association, Matthew Adshead, HM of the Old Vicarage school, Derby, who appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme a couple of weeks ago alongside the founder of the @AbolishEton campaign, Holly Rigby, a state school teacher and coordinator of the campaign. Her stance was “There is no justification for the fact that young people’s opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential is still determined by the size of their parents’ bank balance.” Matthew’s riposte was perfect, asking her to visit his school, and meet with the parents, the postman, the shopkeeper, the hardworking artisans choosing to spend their earnings on their children as they thought best. And therein lies the rub, our parents are everything in our schools, causing the success of their children’s school lives and beyond; we may be architects, designers and such like of course of the opportunities needed, but we but bask in that reflected glory which is of amazing children doing really well. Holly, Jeremy and all, please don’t blame us for the success of our schools, celebrate with us. Don’t let your fury at a Johnson entering Downing Street blind you to the wisdom of another Johnson, one of your own party, who even today clearly is worth celebrating for the actions he caused when in government to improve social mobility.

* Professor Christopher Ferguson has a book coming out in January 2020, entitled How Madness shaped History. His tag line suggests an interesting read – “This lively investigation demonstrates that, when conditions are ripe, one unstable individual can create the best or worst moments of a generation or even a century.

With Trump in the White House and Johnson in 10 Downing Street, who possibly has he in mind?

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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