Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 25 Oct 2007

Our 12-year-old wants to be a doctor. Her school is not strong at science. Should she go to private school?

Hillary's Advice

If you ever want to know what is rotten at the heart of a society, look to the problems of its schools. When I was international editor of The Times Educational Supplement I applied this rule all over the world and it worked every time.

In this country we have a large and rapidly-widening gap between the haves and the have nots, and this is increasingly reflected in the dire under-attainment at the bottom end of our school system, and the excellent achievements at the top. Full marks to Christine Gilbert, head of Ofsted, for pointing this out so unflinchingly in her recent report on school standards.

But in some areas, such fissures are starting to cut through all schools. One is in science. Today, thanks to a shortage of qualified teachers and easier exam options, there is no guarantee at all that a pupil will be well taught in the sciences at the average state secondary school.

Private school pupils, on the other hand, make up just seven per cent of the school population, but get 37 per cent of all A grades in chemistry, while 80 per cent of physics teachers in private schools have a physics degree, compared to a mere 30 per cent in state schools.

If you, as parents, want your daughter to be sure of her science A levels moving her at some point to a private school would sad to say -- be a good bet. Of course, universities are under pressure to widen their intakes and could be prejudiced against her as a private school applicant, but without good A levels she would stand no chance anyway.