All schools face pressure to get good exam grades but this is particularly acute in the fee-paying sector, where parents want to know their money is being spent effectively. Perhaps in their eagerness to meet parental expectations, private schools risk becoming over-prescriptive, relying on didactic styles of teaching.
An axiom in education is that assessment drives learning. If you don’t assess it then students don’t learn it, a tendency that is likely to be heightened in a school dependant on parental support. The result may be strategic learners who do well in school exams but find the inquiry-led approach favoured by many universities a challenge.
Of course state schools are also geared towards exam results; the difference is they lack the resources to be as effective as their private counterparts. Ironically, this very deficiency could benefit their students in the next phase of education: the comparative lack of pressure has given them the freedom to pursue what interests them and so become passionate about learning.
A demand-led system is also likely to be more risk-averse when it comes to experimental methods of teaching, a particular disadvantage when universities are at the forefront of developing new ways of learning.
Such arguments are of necessity broad generalizations. But at the very least private schools need to examine their approach to learning in the light of the comparative success of state school students. Finding out why the latter do better at university is an obvious starting point.
It is a tricky balancing act. A fee-paying school that produces independent learners but doesn’t get the grades is not likely to last very long. The challenge for private schools is how to maximise results to keep parents happy at the same time as equipping their students for life after school.
Nick Morrison Forbes