Last week saw the ritual tears and joy of the announcement of A-Level results. An encouraging aspect was the increase, albeit small, in the percentage of entries in traditional academic subjects, now standing at 51.2 per cent. This is yet another example of incentives at work. The universities have been signalling that non-academic passes, no matter how distinguished, will not count for much, and the message is getting through.
More dispiriting is the huge regional imbalance in the schools which perform strongly. The league tables for private schools have yet to appear. But we know that the best results in these schools are concentrated overwhelmingly in London and the South East. Only a mere handful of Northern schools, such as Manchester Grammar, challenge the dominance of the likes of St Paul’s, Eton and Westminster.
The league tables for state schools confirm the splits in regional performances. Different criteria produce slightly different rankings, but the overall picture is robust to these variations. The list in the Telegraph is as good as any, being based on the percentage of grades A*, A and B received by pupils at a school. Only one school outside London and the South East makes the top 10, the Girls Grammar in the prosperous Cheshire enclave of Altrincham. In the top 100, the West Midlands has 12 schools, the same number as the whole of the North, from Cheshire up to Cumbria and across to Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. The best performing state school in Wales comes in at number 159, and what used to be known as the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire manages an entry at 184.
True, London and the South East are wealthier, but the rest of the country moved on from flat caps, whippets and coal in the bath many decades ago. Besides, a greater proportion of able pupils are creamed off by the private schools in London and its surrounding region. This stiff competition for students does mean that the state sector here has a stronger incentive to perform well. But otherwise, it is very hard to rationalise such disparities in success on the basis of purely economic variables.
Cultural factors drive these discrepancies in the state sector. Crumpsall, for example, is a not particularly salubrious area of Manchester. But the King David comprehensive makes it at 55 in the Telegraph rankings, with the school stating on its website that it is “founded on traditional Jewish values with a belief in respect, courtesy, self-discipline, diligence and the pursuit of excellence”. The Welsh Labour Party, meanwhile, used to be proud that Wales’s schools sent young people to elite universities. But under devolution, this ethos has gone into decline, with politicians being more interested in shoring up their votes among politically correct time servers. No wonder that Wales actually registered a positive swing to the Conservatives in the recent election.
Culture can be an elusive concept, but it is important and economists face the challenge of incorporating it into their analysis.