Independent schools last year received a surge in applications from parents of state-educated children, concerned that their children had fallen worryingly behind with their studies during the pandemic. Research conducted by Witherow Brooke indicates applications to private schools have increased by an average of approximately 15% from pre-Covid levels. Amongst the schools researched, last year Wycombe Abbey School received 270 applications compared to 200 the previous year, King’s College Wimbledon increased to 580 from 470 and JAGS School from 470 to 528.
Whilst it’s normal for there to be a fluctuation in admissions year on year, these numbers represent a significant leap, and the usually highly competitive school entrance examinations have become even more so.
The main driving force in this exodus of state-school parents is the sharp distinction between the way in which independent schools and state schools were able to cope with the pandemic. When schools were officially closed down in March 2020, most independent schools had successfully shifted all of their lessons online within a couple of weeks. By contrast, the vast majority of state schools, burdened by the skeleton service they provided to key workers, a lack of technological resources and staff shortages and illnesses were not able to launch an online program of learning in time. Most state school students went for months without any formal education.
A teacher tapp survey of online classes provision during the first lockdown reported that over 70% of private secondary schools had regular interactive lessons compared to less than 10% in state schools, and a Sutton Trust study in April of last year found that half of private school teachers reported receiving more than three quarters of their homework, compared to 27% in the most advantaged state schools and 8% in the most disadvantaged state schools.
I interviewed educationalist and writer, Sir Anthony Seldon, on this topic and attributed this primarily to a resource gap between private and state schools, but also between the best state schools and the rest: “Covid has cast a spotlight on differential performance between provision and quite simply the independent sector was better equipped to support Covid than the state sector in aggregate, recognising that some individual state schools have done a terrific job, but there simply wasn’t the money in those schools to put the investment in or the money to have the right equipment at home. It’s been a very difficult thing for state schools for that reason.”
Seldon also highlighted a failure to embrace educational technology as a leading factor in many state schools’ underperformance during the pandemic: “While some state schools like for example Westminster Academy in Paddington had invested in the previous five years in ensuring that their students had equipment at home and that their teachers were up to speed with different methods of learning, many were not, and I think the DofE has been too focussed on narrow measures of attainment and have only recently started smelling the silicone and recognising and that these new technologies are total game changers in the way that we look after young people.”
Whilst the state sector’s provision for remote learning has undoubtedly improved over the course of the various lockdowns, with schools scrambling to provide disadvantaged students with laptops to use at home, the cost to this cohort’s education is looking ominous. According to the national foundation for Educational Research, students in the UK are on average three months behind previous cohort, but the gap between privately educated and publicly educated pupils grew by almost half during the pandemic, prompting those parents who can afford to do so, to jump ship.
Eyles, Gibbons & Montebruno (2020), Covid-19 school shutdowns: What will they do to our children’s education? In A CEP Covid-19 Analysis, Paper No.001, L.S.E. https://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cepcovid-19-001.pdf
Montacute (2020), Social Mobility and Covid-19, The Sutton Trust, https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-and-Social-Mobility-1.pdf
Staton, B. (2020), How coronavirus is widening the gap in schools. In The Financial Times 19/05/2020, https://www.ft.com/content/50fcc605-674d-4630-9718-d3890eccffbf
Schleicher, B. (2020), The Impact of Covid-19 on Education. In Insights from Education at a glance, OECD, https://www.oecd.org/education/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-education-insights-education-at-a-glance-2020.pdf
United Nations (2020), Policy Brief: Education during Covid-19 and beyond, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/08/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf
Universities UK (2020), Achieving stability in the higher education sector following Covid-19, https://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cepcovid-19-001.pdf
Written by Roland Witherow, Director of Witherow Brooke