A libertarian inclined blog for teachers and learners of all ages. Comments, emails and links to other educational stuff welcome.

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Next entry: "Someone may get hurt ..."
Previous entry: Confused Japanese boy
Sunday June 01 2008

I am always on the lookout for evidence concerning the quality of British state education.  Has British state education got better in the last few decades, or worse, or has it just flatlined?  On the face of this, this article by Jenny McCartney puts a powerful case to the effect that it has got worse.

Oxford wants £1.25 billion. That is the target of the biggest fundraising drive in the university’s history, announced last week.

This sum would, the university said, enable it to “sustain and enhance” its reputation and provide “security in a world of uncertain state funding and growing global competition”.

It didn’t mention directly what is almost certainly one of its biggest ambitions: to use the loot to slip away from the ever-tightening squeeze of the Government.

Our Government, like some town hall functionary of limited comprehension but relentless ambition, has long regarded the clever clogs at Oxford with the deepest suspicion. It has rightly suspected that, with Oxford’s fabled reputation for independent thinking, the university might not be suitably subservient to the New Labour mania for centrally imposed targets.

It also realised that Oxford was internationally recognised as a centre of academic excellence, and that its intake could therefore be read as an objective judgment on the comparative merits of Britain’s state and independent schools. Since Oxford now admits roughly equal numbers of students from independent and state schools, the implicit judgment - that the much smaller independent sector punches far above its academic weight - could not be permitted to stand.

The point being that it used to be a significantly higher proportion than fifty percent.

In the early 1970s, roughly 70 per cent of Oxford admissions were from the state sector. The uncomfortable truth for the Government is not that Oxford admissions tutors have mysteriously grown more snobbish since the 1970s, but that the quality of state-provided education has dramatically declined.

I wonder.  As McCartney herself acknowledges, the size of the private sector has expanded.  She accounts for that expansion purely by saying that the quality of the alternative to the private sector - the state sector - has declined.  But what if the demand for private sector education has grown not because the state sector has got worse but simply because the number of people able to afford its fees has grown?  What if the number of Oxford-ready pupils it churns out has increased, simply because more have been ready to pay them?

I can imagine lots of people responding to the above question by insisting that state education has got worse, so all that McCartney says makes sense.  I agree that it makes sense, and personally I think it probably is true, to some extent.  But the point is, the reasons why you think that state education has got worse is not that Oxford now picks a higher proportion of its intake from the private sector than it used to.  State education has got worse, because, well, it has.

It may also be true that the government doesn’t like the way that Oxford now picks more of its intake from the private sector, because it fears that this will be interpreted as evidence of state sector decline.  It may even believe that it is evidence of such decline, and it may indeed want such evidence suppressed.  And Oxford might dislike that attempt at suppression and indeed want to buy its way out of it.  But the government might be wrong.