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The government has been put on the spot by the news that the greater gains in top A-level grades in recent years have been in private and grammar schools.

Education ministers say the rise in the overall proportion getting an A - now 25.3% of entries - is down to to "better teaching and learning".

This raised the question of why state schools had not been doing so well.

Ministers said sustained investment in mainstream education was the way to increase opportunity for the many.

Looked at over the five years since the Curriculum 2000 changes to A-levels, the proportion of entries from independent schools awarded an A has increased by more than six percentage points.

In state grammar schools it was almost as great.

This was double the improvement in the majority of state schools and colleges, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications.

The differences were revealed by the director general of the biggest board, AQA, Mike Cresswell, in a briefing for journalists, to pre-empt suggestions from "the usual grumpy old people" that the exams must be getting easier.

"If that were the case you would expect to see students from all sorts of schools and colleges and backgrounds showing the same average increase in outcomes," he said.

"The independent sector's share of the total number ofA grades
has actually fallen over the same periodJim Knight, Schools Minister"

"They sit the same exams, we mark them the same, our examiners don't even know which school or college they are from." He said the improvements were down to improved teaching and learning. He was not going to speculate on why there were such differences between different centres. "But those differences would not exist if the exams were getting easier." Some people have questioned his conclusions.

The percentage improvement in private schools over the five years was 15.7%, whereas in comprehensives it was 17.6%. So although the absolute increase in comprehensives was less than half that in the independents, they had improved at a slightly faster rate. But then the gap between the two has widened, with the independent schools pulling further ahead.

'Selection helps the few'
Schools Minister Jim Knight said that overall the number of A-level entries had risen by 8% since 1997.

"This means that thousands more young people from all backgrounds are now taking and achieving A-level qualifications, which is something to celebrate."

He said the number of A grades achieved by pupils in state schools had risen between 1997 and 2006 and the independent sector's share of the total number of A grades had actually fallen over the same period.

"What this research actually demonstrates is that selection helps the few, but that sustained investment in mainstream education is the way to increase opportunity for the many.

"That is why we have increased investment in state schools, and it is why we are delighted with the record results achieved today."

The head of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, said it was hardly surprising that independent and selective schools had the better results.

"Their students have been rigorously selected, come from on average wealthier homes, and in the case of independent schools are taught in smaller classes and have more money spent on them.

"Selective schools having the best results is the educational equivalent of the Pope being a Catholic."

Dr Dunford challenged the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to fulfil the pledge he made as Chancellor to raise state school funding to independent levels.

The general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, Jonathan Shephard, said private schools attracted better qualified teachers than many state comprehensives.

In some state schools pupils were under peer pressure to behave badly rather than work hard, he said.

Another factor was the independent sector's freedom to innovate.

"The ability to teach children above and beyond the national curriculum - and at times to ignore the national curriculum - is very important," he said.

"It gives teachers at independent schools a greater degree of professional freedom and that does look to benefit the children."

The high master of St Paul's independent boys school, Martin Stephen, said he thought it was more about centres of excellence.

A concentration of bright students could reach "a critical mass", he said.

"They spark each other and create a culture of learning and in turn stimulate the teachers," he said.

"If you educate like with like you achieve a total outcome that's greater than the sum of the parts."

This did not only happen in independent schools, there were some excellent maintained schools too, Dr Stephen said.

But the problem in much of the state sector was a "one size fits all" philosophy about 11 to 16 education, which did not work - especially for gifted children, who needed to be seen as a "special needs" category.

"We have this extraordinary idea in the UK that one teacher fits all too. It doesn't work," he said.

Conversely, the greater improvements in the grade E pass rate have been in colleges, comprehensives and secondary modern schools.


Revealed: the hidden benefits of a private-school education

Private schools offering lavish extracurricular activities give their pupils an unfair advantage and should be forced to share their facilities with state pupils, says a report commissioned by the prime minister.

Former cabinet minister Alan Milburn was asked to look at how class barriers could be broken down in Britain and found that middle-class children whose parents do not move in the "right" circles, as well as those from poorer families, now risk being shut out of professions that have become more socially exclusive.

Milburn says that fee-paying pupils benefit from an emphasis on "soft skills" such as teamwork and communication, which are imparted through sport, music and drama. With more pupils now getting the academic grades needed for university, private pupils get ahead because of their more rounded CVs and confident presentation.

The report calls on the Charity Commission to force schools to share extracurricular activities with state school pupils as a condition of maintaining their charitable status, and for Ofsted to inspect state schools on their provision of extras such as music and drama to ensure they become a priority.

Milburn is also expected to back an extension of university schemes offering students from poor backgrounds places on lower grades than more privileged children, and to attack poor careers advice in state schools.

Writing in the Observer today, Milburn argues that there is a "chasm between where we are and where we need to be" to reap the benefits of new professional jobs emerging from the recession, with research suggesting they may account for nine in 10 of new vacancies created.

His report will warn of a growing culture of unpaid, unadvertised internships now increasingly required to get into competitive fields which is excluding even relatively well-off children if their parents lack the social connections to secure them. Milburn's findings will be controversial in some parts of government, reawakening divisions over how to present a planned election crusade to reduce class divides. It will be seen as reinforcing the argument from John Denham, the new communities secretary, earlier this month that Labour must not become merely a party of the poor.


Private schools urged to recruit more foreign pupils

Falling pound could make British schools attractive to Chinese parents, private schools conference is toldCash-strapped private schools should recruit overseas pupils to make up for recession-hit parents in the UK withdrawing their children, headteachers were told today.

The falling pound could make private schools more attractive to parents in China and elsewhere, said David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council.

Speaking to a conference of private schools in Brighton, he said: "The numbers of pupils from China are increasing. Schools might look to target overseas students if they have problems...Try to persuade the parents who are interested in independent education that it is affordable. Look at the competitiveness of the UK economy because of the falling pound."

Private schools are facing intense financial pressure and may be forced to reduce fees to avoid losing students in the recession.
January's annual census of private schools showed that the expansion of the past few years has stalled, but they are attracting more pupils from China, Hong Kong and Germany than in previous years.

Private schools are expected to fare worse as the recession continues. In the last recession, in the 1990s, the numbers of pupils held up in the first two years of the downturn – 1990 and 1991 – then plummeted.

Lyscom said: "We may see a gradual decline in pupil numbers – that was the lesson last time. The key question is what is going to happen in September. We have weathered the first bit, but are there going to be bums on seats this September?"
The predicted fall in student numbers comes as new charities legisation means private schools are expected to give a greater number of discounted places to children who cannot afford full fees.

Lysom advised headteachers to keep banks onside, reschedule big building projects, and make contingency plans. While it was a "rocky road ahead", he said, more parents were attending private school open days.

Ralph Lucas, editor of The Good School Guide, said independent schools had a great opportunity to recruit more overseas students, but needed to ensure they were helped to fit in. "Somebody has to improve things for overseas students – you don't integrate them," he told the heads.

Richard Cairns, the head of Brighton college which charges up to £25,600 a year for boarding pupils, said the government was slowly "strangling" schools with red tape.

He said: "They tell us to sack poor teachers – and then introduce employment laws that make that virtually impossible. They urge us to encourage more children to play sport – and yet insist on detailed risk assessments for every game."



People who have been to private school earn 30% more than those who went to state schools, research suggests.
Family background has traditionally been seen as a major factor behind children's achievement and earnings.

Research by Kent University and the London School of Economics confirms this but says higher grades achieved at private schools are the crucial factor.

The study found that 20% of the pay gap was due to such better exam grades and 10% to family background.

The research, published in the journal Significance, suggests that the gap between earnings of state and private pupils has widened in the past 50 years.

About 8% of children in the UK go to independent schools.

For the study, researchers analysed data on 10,000 people from the British Household Study who went to school in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

'Substantial impact'

The authors concluded: "Private schools do indeed have a substantial impact on earnings later in life. Moreover, the effect also seems to have increased over time."

Researcher Richard Murphy, from the London School of Economics, said: "You would expect family background to have a high impact on earnings and it does".

But he said qualifications were very important and that if someone at a state school achieved the same exam results as someone at a private school, they should earn the same amount, the research suggested.

But when the researchers "controlled" for qualifications - removing their influence from the calculations - they isolated an earnings benefit due to attendance at a private school.

"Private schools do indeed provide benefits for some individuals above and beyond those that accrue through qualifications and access to good universities"

benefit, they said, was felt most by those who went on to the highest paid jobs, but did not have an impact on the lowest paid groups.
The report said: "Private schools do indeed provide benefits for some individuals above and beyond those that accrue through qualifications and access to good universities.
"Whether these benefits come through 'old boy networks', 'old girl networks', through superior careers advice systems, or through unmeasured broad competences that are not captured by formal qualifications, we cannot say.
"But, apparently, it is only those in the top half of the spectrum of earning ability that benefit substantially in this way.
"These are the people of naturally high ability, or who have gained entry into high-quality schools.

"For those in the middle of the spectrum, the extra benefits are much smaller, though still significant; for those at the bottom they are non-existent."