Upon entrance to university, students embrace cultural change with a hefty dose of imposter syndrome: the sinking feeling that to be exceptional in one school is to become middling in the next. Perhaps it becomes apparent that your secondary school was ripe with grade inflation, or perhaps COVID-19 exams gave you pity: your negligent exam mistakes, graded by a sympathetic teacher mid-pandemic, were passed by.
The understanding of who ‘makes it’ into university — topping the charts on national rankings, and with a greater chance of sliding into illusive, high-paying careers — lacks consensus. It does not take a statistician to realise a myriad of factors influence our academic success. But for statisticians, economists, and sociologists, the story remains unclear. To analyse the impacts of a student’s education on their long-term outcomes means eliminating multiple confounding factors. This process, naturally, is unrealistic.
Dr Lorenzo Neri, of the School of Business at the University of St Andrews, focuses his primary research on the economics of education. Dr Neri teaches a module on the subject and has spent a great deal of time analysing state-funded school reforms. Following changes to UK state school classification in 2010, English schools were given the opportunity to form academies—autonomous state-funded schools. “There is a huge [amount of] literature which has studied autonomous schools,” says Dr Neri. Certain studies point to positive effects on student performance. Often, autonomous schools form larger organisations following reform. They create innovation in the traditional structure of state schools.
“We study how school chains organise themselves.” Samples of schools managed, clustered into organisations with geographic ranges, is an environment well fit for reviews on the best ways to educate. “It has been 13 years since the reform. So far we are observing the short-term effects.”
Innovation in school policy begs questions regarding UK school reform’s purpose; to increase human capital, as Dr Neri mentions, is to focus exclusively on test performance. This may ignore other measurements of student success. Even standardised tests bring controversy to British media; for universities’ current undergraduate generation, high A-level grades were statistically overrepresented. The phenomenon suggests a level of illegitimacy to popular success metrics, which I brought to Dr Neri: “[In the UK] exams are marked by external teachers,” he begins. Upon 2007 changes to standardized exams, distributed at the end of primary school, students with exam grades at the cusp of thresholds were double-marked. “This was not due to any malignant practice… but in our paper, we show that there are consequences for neighbourhood house prices.”
The desires and consequences of autonomous schools cannot be touched on without an examination of its counterpart, a privately funded education. Beheld by over one-third of St Andrews students, profound assumptions on the effects of one’s secondary education are familiar. I define the question many ask, one which distracts from the need or novelty of autonomous school reform. “Is there a sizeable impact of private education on students?”
“It’s a very good question,” says Dr Neri. “It is exactly the debate when it comes to very good state schools.” Analysing the discrepancies and nuances for the 2,600 independent UK schools, and 32,000 schools in sum, requires large amounts of transparent data. “It’s not always easy to obtain data on private schools… not because they are hiding their data, but because they are not required to report it in the same way.” Further, private schools do not always follow the national curriculum, so data may not be directly comparable.
In a widely proclaimed ‘age of information,’ the effects of secondary schools may be a reminder that not all information is complete. For students, our experiences in education are laid out in conversations we have on campus and the nuanced transitions from school to university. Unfortunately, what defines a prosperous education, and what differentiates one from another, may only scratch the surface of our assumptions and conclusions on the impacts of schooling.
Illustration by Aimee Robbins