Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Private schools are 'no better for A levels' (?)

Read the article below and work out what is wrong with the headline that appeared on it (as above but without the question mark). 'A' levels are final High School exams in Britain and are widely relied on for university entry

Private schools often do little better than state schools at A level, according to research suggesting that the brightest pupils perform just as well whatever type of school they attend. The findings, from David Jesson, of York University, raise serious questions about whether parents who make immense financial sacrifices to pay private school fees of up to £20,000 a year are getting good value for money.

Professor Jesson said that he had been surprised by his own research, which showed very little difference between the state and independent sectors in the proportion of the most able students gaining three grade As at A level, now almost essential for gaining a place at Oxford or Cambridge. “This is the demolition of the myth that independent school education is of itself creating better results,” he said.

“State schools are doing an absolutely comparable job with helping the progression of pupils from GCSE to A level. There is very little difference in the outcomes of more able pupils between the two types of school.”

The findings, which contradict recent research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, showing that British independent schools achieve the best results in the world, have already provoked controversy. Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, was sceptical about the findings, which he said went against common sense.

Professor Jesson’s results could also have far-reaching implications for fee-paying parents and for independent schools. Both rely on students at fee-paying schools making up 30 to 40 per cent of Oxbridge entrants.

The Government encourages universities to accept more students from the state sector and parents may start to question the value of keeping their children in the private sector after GCSE.

Professor Jesson’s research is based on the A-level results for the whole country between 2004 and this year and looks specifically at the brightest top 10 per cent of pupils, defined by their performance at GCSE. He compared results in independent schools, state schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges.

Among the brightest 5 per cent of children, 75 per cent of those at private school attained three grade As, compared with 74 per cent at sixth-form college and 71 per cent at state school. In the next brightest 5 per cent, 45 per cent of private school pupils gained three grade As, compared with 47 and 41 per cent at sixth-form college and state school students respectively.

“The public expectation is that because people pay a lot of money to go to independent schools, their results should be much better, but they do not appear to be,” said Professor Jesson, an education evaluator and economist, who presented his findings to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s annual conference last week.

He had not explored why independent schools seem to offer very little premium value to the brightest A-level students. But he noted a trend for pupils to leave the private sector after their GCSEs to study A levels at sixth-form college. Many state school A-level students could therefore have already benefited from five years in the private sector. He conceded that independent schools may still produce better results than the state sector in subjects most valued by the elite universities, such as science, maths and languages.

A study published by Professor Jesson last year found that the most able 5 per cent at age 11 were only half as likely as those educated privately to achieve three A grades at A level at state schools. His latest research suggests that, by the age of 16, either the most able students may be less affected by their learning environment than younger children, or any disadvantage in the state sector is already over.

Professor Smithers questioned whether using A levels as a comparator between different types of school was sufficiently discriminating, given that A grades were achieved in nearly a quarter of all A levels. “If I were a parent with a child in independent school, I would go with my instincts of what is a good school, rather than be unduly influenced by these figures,” he said.


What the headline should have said is: "Private schools are 'no better for A levels' -- if you are naturally very bright", or "If you are very bright, you will do well in any system" -- which has long been said and which is also what 100 years of IQ research have shown -- that problem-solving ability is highly generalizable from setting to setting. The article does not even purport to address what is true for average pupils or pupils in general. It is the average Joe that the education system makes a difference to. The only thing surprising about Professor Jesson's findings is Professor Jesson's surprise


The Department of Health provoked uproar among doctors yesterday by asking GPs in England to send in correspondence from objectors who do not want their confidential medical records placed on the Spine, a national NHS database. Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said letters from patients who want to keep their private medical details out of the government's reach should be sent to Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, for "full consideration". Campaigners who fear the national database will infringe patients' civil liberties said the exercise would give Ms Hewitt access to the names and addresses of patients most likely to be offended by government intrusion.

GPs wrote to the General Medical Council asking for a ruling on whether Sir Liam had broken the doctors' code of good practice by using his authority to encourage GPs to breach patient confidentiality without clinical justification. Sir Liam's letter complained about "misleading statements" in a Guardian article on November 1 that the police and other agencies might be able to access medical records once they had been loaded on to the national database. The article included a form of words patients could use to ask Ms Hewitt to refrain from uploading their records without their explicit consent. Sir Liam said patients were sending a similar request to GPs instead of the health secretary. He added: "If you do receive any such letters I would ask you to send them to the Department of Health so they may receive full consideration."

Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA's GPs' committee, said: "The chief medical officer's intervention is not helpful and GPs should not forward these letters. It is possible that some patients might think this is a breach of confidentiality in that a letter sent to their GP is forwarded to somebody else without their consent." Paul Cundy, the BMA's spokesman on IT, said: "For a GP to forward such letters without the explicit consent of the patient would be a gross breach of privacy. In effect it is asking GPs to spy on his behalf. He should retract immediately. "Since these patients are objecting to the Big Brother society, this is an astonishingly incompetent gaffe."

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said: "It is not for the government to decide unilaterally to override the wishes of those patients who decide to write to their GP, but not to Ms Hewitt. For the chief medical officer to so recklessly put news management ahead of patient privacy is shocking." The government wants to start uploading a summary of patients' records in trial areas in the spring. Sir Liam reassured GPs: "There will be plenty of time to discuss patients' concerns with them before any data uploads ... in their areas."



Women who are underweight are more at risk of suffering a miscarriage than those who are overweight, research suggests. Women whose body mass index was low - below 18.5 - when they conceived were much more likely to have a miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy. But being overweight appeared to have [no] adverse consequences on a pregnancy.

A study commissioned by the Miscarriage Association suggests that taking vitamin supplements during the first weeks of pregnancy halved the odds of a miscarriage as did eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Even eating chocolate reduced the risk slightly. Other factors that increased the chance of a successful pregnancy included a planned conception and marriage, said the study, which is published online in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology today.

Every year an estimated 250,000 women miscarry, but while there are a number of well-established risk factors, including increased maternal age, high alcohol consumption or fertility problems, the exact cause of most miscarriages is unknown.

Noreen Maconochie and Pat Doyle, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, studied 603 women aged 18 to 55 who had suffered a miscarriage in the first trimester (less than 13 weeks' gestation) and compared their lifestyles with those of more than 6,000 women whose pregnancies progressed beyond 12 weeks. They found that women who had a BMI of less than 18.5 when they conceived were 72 per cent more likely to miscarry in the first trimester. Those with what is considered a normal BMI score of 18.5 to 25, and those above were not found to increase their risk of miscarriage.

Ms Maconochie, the lead author, said yesterday: "Our study confirms the findings of previous studies, which suggest that following a healthy diet, reducing stress and looking after your emotional wellbeing may all play a role in helping women in early pregnancy, or planning a pregnancy, to reduce their risk of miscarriage."

The findings suggested that if a woman was not married or living with a partner, her risk of miscarriage was higher. If she changed partner during pregnancy, her odds increased by 60 per cent. The odds of a miscarriage increased by 60 per cent for women who had a history of abortion and 41 per cent for those who had fertility problems. All types of assisted reproduction were associated with increased odds, but the ratios were highest among pregnancies that resulted from intrauterine insemination or artificial insemination.

The Miscarriage Association said: "These findings are really very interesting and surprising. When it comes to weight most of the anecdotal evidence had previously been around women who were overweight."


An excellent brief comment on the shambles that is the British Conservative Party here. It is such a straight-talking piece that even Britain's conservative "Sunday Telegraph" would not publish it, despite it being written by one of their regular columnists.

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