Private schools are booming – but what do you really get for your money?

Gate’s open. Matthew Fearn/PA

Half a century ago, the world of private education was under serious pressure. Threatened by an emboldened political left keen to abolish private schools or incorporate them into the state sector, and confronted by a changing economic environment, the leading so-called “public” schools and others after them began to care a lot more about academic success. The next few decades saw a transformation in these schools’ achievements, with many becoming nation-beating academic powerhouses.

Fee rises (threefold in real terms since 1980) have enabled this, while at the same time both maintaining and expanding the schools’ educational aims: a broad cultural education, with exposure to sports, music, theatre and so on in ways that dwarf the typical state school student’s experience.

That transformation is shown by new evidence that the “return” on private education – the wage premium of a privately educated person compared with someone educated in the state sector – has significantly increased.

The premium at age 34 for those born in 1958 was 24%, though this shrinks to just 7% once we control for social background. But for those born in 1970, the premium had already risen to around 37%.

Now, a new report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) has confirmed that the improvement in return was still evident last year when the 1970 cohort reached the age of 42 in 2012. They calculate that, between the ages of 26 and 42, someone privately educated would have earned £194,000 more than the average person educated in the state sector.

Impediments

Most of this wage premium can be traced to the fact that private school pupils achieve higher educational qualifications, and proceed to higher-ranking universities. Other research has found that private school alumni do worse at university than state school alumni with the same school grades. But nonetheless, the privately-educated student still comes out on top in the labour market.

In addition to their better qualifications, their success is variously attributed to higher aspirations and self-confidence, and social networks that help them find more successful career paths. It may also reflect that broader cultural exposure that enables privately educated people to do disproportionately well in the creative industries. In current research at the Institute of Education, we are working on investigating which of these factors seem to be the most important.

Those now paying for their children’s private education must be hoping for a future premium even higher than the backward-looking estimates from the SMF – especially given today’s high fees, which average nearly £14,000 for day pupils and over £27,000 for boarders.

Those high fees and their accordant high returns are an obvious and major impediment to social mobility. This is what exercised the Sutton Trust and led to its proposal for an Open Access scheme, in which leading academically selective private schools would be opened up to all, with support from the taxpayer for the costs of those unable to pay.

Mixing it up

The SMF report approves of this scheme, though they would tweaking it with suggestions to improve its chances of success. Interestingly, their research confirms that if the cohort of children born in 2000 had been selected for private education based entirely on merit, and not on family income, this would have significantly altered the social composition of private schools.

One thing left out of the equation is the effect on other pupils of being educated alongside the aspiring and able children transferred from the local comprehensive to the “public” school. These benefits are one of the reasons why many private schools like the proposed scheme (alongside the influx of public funds into the sector).

We also don’t know what detrimental effect the scheme might have on pupils left behind, who previously would have benefited from growing up and being educated alongside their able and aspiring peers. To properly weigh up whether something like the Open Access scheme would work, we need to explore what it would mean for everyone effected.