Why is the proportion of pupils from independent and state selective schools attending top universities greater than the proportion of pupils from comprehensive schools?

Janet Downs's picture
The proportion of pupils from independent and state selective schools attending top universities is greater than the proportion of pupils from comprehensives. This fact has been used to criticise comprehensive schools. But what are the reasons for this discrepancy? Possible answers are:

1 Independents and grammars have a sixth form curriculum geared towards entry to top universities.

2 Pupils at independents and grammars are more likely to receive careers information and guidance which steers them towards top universities.

3 Parents of pupils in independents and grammars are more likely to expect their children to apply to top universities. They are also more likely to be able to provide financial support.

4 University tuition fees may deter poorer students from applying to certain universities.

Comprehensive schools are criticised because the proportion of their sixth-formers attending top universities is lower than the proportion in independents and grammars. But to compare comprehensive schools with independents and grammars is not comparing like with like. Comprehensive schools cater for a wider range of ability and needs so the proportion going to university is likely to be smaller. This should not be used as an excuse to bash comprehensive schools especially as pupils from such schools are likely to outperform their equally-qualified peers from independent and grammar schools at university.

The danger in judging schools on the destinations of their pupils risks schools steering pupils into courses which are not suitable or to a university which might not meet their needs. That said, careers education and guidance in schools should ensure that decisions made about which GCSEs and A levels to study does not impact negatively on post-18 education choices.

So how can the proportion of comprehensive schools pupils going to top universities be increased? Improving careers education and guidance is one way. Raising aspirations is another – universities and organisations like the Sutton Trust are involved in outreach programmes and such activities as Summer Schools to persuade disadvantaged children that university is a viable option. However, suggestions such as those proposed by Sir Peter Lampl and AQA that universities consider context when offering places are met with a storm of protest.

But perhaps the discussion should shift away from how many pupils attend top universities as if this were the only desirable goal. Perhaps politicians and commentators should be asking another question: how can schools best prepare pupils for adult life which for about 50% of pupils will not involve university education? The latter group seems to be ignored except by those schools and colleges which cater for them – but schools and colleges that provide for this group are viewed as second-rate, even failing. Yes, all children should be given the chance to fulfil their potential - and that includes those who will not attend university. As Newsom said way back in 1963, they are “Half our future.”

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andy's picture
Fri, 15/06/2012 - 12:36

If you will forgive me I'll largely borrow from my comment made yesterday on the Sutton Trust thread, which I acknowledge you have also responded and flag up the Trust's reference to their top 30 universities:

"Although statistics are notorious for the way they can and often are manipulated to present and support the narrative you want, it would appear that the trend at Oxbridge is nowhere near a tilted toward fee-paying schools as they once were:

“In 2009, state school students made up a total of 59 per cent of Cambridge University’s intake and 54 per cent of Oxford’s.”


“State school pupils receive 58.5% of offers for 2011 admissions.”


The potential flaw in these statistics could be that they are not representative of the percentage of ‘AAA’ A Levels gained by state pupils v fee-paying schools. But a further potential twist could be that not all the state triple A pupils apply for Oxbridge, which begs the question why not expand the measure from Oxbridge to the wider Russell Group?"

A recent Guardian article indicated that an estimated 44% of teachers recommend bright state pupils try for Oxbridge:

The Sutton Trust, which commissioned the study, said it was deeply concerning that the majority of teachers would not encourage gifted students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge.

It said more needed to be done in schools to "dispel the myths" about the two elite institutions and other leading universities.

The study, which questioned 730 state secondary school teachers as part of the Teacher Voice Omnibus which regularly surveys teachers' views, found that just 44% would encourage their gifted students to consider Oxford or Cambridge, down from 50% five years ago.

A breakdown of the findings shows that 16% of teachers always encourage their academically gifted pupils to apply to Oxbridge, while 28% say they usually do."


It is also interesting to note that the Russell Group publish a list of A level qualification that facilitate (increase the chances of getting) an interview/offer but that state school curriculums do not appear to cater for this. E.g.: the curriculum offers are perhaps skewed toward vocational and so called soft subjects such as General Studies and Media. This in itself supports your allusion both to curriculums designed to prepare students for the next steps of their life and the perception of life preparing qualifications as being second rate as opposed to cerebral academic subjects.

It is interesting to note that Oxbridge say that 40% of state students who attend their summer Schools receive offers.

For me then, this boils down to basic questions of what is the purpose of education and how can we re-educate the nations 'leaders' (educational, political and employers) that the perception that some qualifications are superior to others is seriously flawed and leads to the politcians and media writing off around 50% of students as second rate, which is disgraceful nonsense and wicked waste of talent.

Just ask top employers (e.g. Accountancy and Management Accountancy Firms, Major Banks, and petrochemical companies) who increasingly are taking the bright AAA A level students directly into their in-house training schemes, where they can earn a salary, gain experience and achieve highly valued specific to industry qualifications.

This is backed up and alluded to by Brian Lightman, ASCL in the same Guardian article:

"There are many good universities in the UK and other excellent employment-based routes into top careers, all of which are available to high-calibre applicants from all backgrounds. Social mobility is about far more than entry to Oxbridge."

Arun's picture
Fri, 28/03/2014 - 13:55

The status of the university attended affects job prospects but this is not reflected by the fees UK universities charge. Universities in the UK are academically selective and this means they take more pupils from independent and state schools that are also academically selective.

Why do universities have different criteria for acceptance on a course?

Someone considered capable of completing a maths degree at London Metropolitan should be considered capable of completing a maths degree at Oxford. London Metropolitan requires 200 UCAS points to study maths while Oxford requires 400. This makes no sense. People study for degrees individually. There is no reason universities should not be mixed ability. There should be a standard UCAS point threshold for degree subjects with places at oversubscribed universities allocated by lottery. Employers would not then be able to rank university degrees by institution.

Not everyone who sends their children to independent schools is motivated by the desire to gift their children an enjoyable development experience which will make them less smug than parents who have climbed the North Face of achievement and attribute none of their success to the genes they have inherited. There are some elitist independent schools that only focus on exam results. There is a market for these schools because for some well-connected families, entrance to high status universities is crucial as their children need degrees from these institutions to allow them to take up the highly sought after jobs that have been lined up for them. A degree from a high status university is a licence to benefit from nepotism as the accused can convincingly claim they were awarded their position on 'merit'.

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