Saturday, 28 January 2012


In the lucky life that I live both my children have gone to private primary schools, and will similarly continue their independent sector education at secondary level. For the last few years we have had a seemingly continuous set of important checkpoints as they have gone through school test, interviews and entrance exams that will determine where they will go. Realistically all the schools they might attend are good, but the 'better' ones have a higher success rate in getting in to top universities, the next stage of the educational conveyor belt.

Neither of our kids seemed too bothered about where they would head, until they reached the age of nine. Then, almost as if a switch had been flicked, they both set themselves challenging targets for which schools they wanted to go to. They were clearly influenced by the league tables, and by the perceived pecking order amongst their peers. No doubt they also reflected our values as parents - we would support them come what may, and are happy for them to aim high even if they subsequently fail. We also see academic success and discipline as a good thing.

So they worked hard, REALLY hard. They had tutors to assist them. They volunteered for more difficult homework when given a choice. They developed their extra-curricular activities as these would help them in interviews. Sometimes they got stuck, tired, or seemed to fall behind. But mostly the challenge was satisfying, maturing and, frankly, an excellent distraction from computer games.

So how did they do? The results are not all in, but they did fine. But the most interesting thing is that they ended up no higher up their class than before. How come? Because all the other parents did the same thing. The whole class improved enormously as a result of pupil, parent and teacher effort.

This, of course, was true of all the other candidates - effectively all 500 applicants for the 100 slots at each school had put their backs in to it. No one was individually any better off by the end of a couple of years of intense preparation; but the overall standard of the group was way ahead, and the kids had all learnt how to work towards a goal, to learn some useful skills, to stick at something worthwhile, to struggle with it and, ultimately, to get in to a good school.


Inevitably I know relatively little about the equivalent selection process for state schools, and it is always dangerous to blog about a subject where you have limited knowledge. I’d be grateful for feedback on this attempt at extrapolating the benefits of competition in private schools to admissions for the majority of children.

As I understand it, with a few exceptions, admission criteria for government funded schools must NOT include capability or potential. No interviews are allowed. There are better and worse schools, and parents clearly know this, but with the exception of religious discrimination, pretty much all a family can do to manipulate the system is to try to move closer to their favourite school.

There is no incentive to study hard; no reward for parents who help with homework. A kid in a poor area with poor schools can't get to a good school in a better area by applying themselves. Richer families in nice areas get their kids in to nearby good schools, even if they are lazy academically.

Worse still the group as a whole has no incentive to improve to their full potential, leaving them all at a lower level.

I’m not arguing here for a return to grammar schools, where the top 10% were creamed off; I’m not suggesting that academic performance should be the only criteria for admission (personally I prefer potential as the main driver). But imagine a world in which all state schools held an entrance exam, however good they are. Even if your kid was only aiming for a mid-rated school you would have a substantial incentive to have them work hard and strive for improvement, for fear they end up in the worse local school.

And the logical effect should be that, rather than improving parental skills at pretending to live close to the good school, most kids would shift up a level in terms of performance and work ethic – surely a useful outcome.


  1. Is there a comparably sized developed country that has a competitive system for school places at age 11?

  2. If you are wondering why you get no comments on your blog, you should try posting one. I clearly identified myself but still came up as unknown