State Sector Continues to Close the Gap with the Private Sector

Henry Stewart's picture
The release of A level results show once again that the gap has narrowed between the state and private sectors. For the last decade at least the proportion of the highest grades coming from state schools has been gradually increasing.

The percentage of state school A levels achieving an A or A* grade had risen from 22.2% in 2009 to 22.6% in 2010 and then to 23.4% in 2011. This appears not to have been due to ‘grade inflation’ as the proportion in private schools rose only from 50.6% to 50.8% in 2010 and stayed at the same figure in 2011.

The 2012 results show a fall for both sectors. The private sector % has fallen by 0.7% to 50.1% and the state sector % by 0.5% to 22.9%. This means that the gap has reduced in each of the last three years. The gap was 28.4% in 2009, 28.2% in 2010, 27.4% in 2011 and 27.2% in 2012.:

The figure in private schools does of course remain higher. However this can be expected from the background of those attending such schools. The key fact is that the gap is steadily – year by year – closing. It is clear that the performance of state schools is consistently improving. Let’s celebrate this and congratulate the students and their teachers on the hard work and dedication that is delivering these results.

For a comparison of the performance of a school in each sector, Wellington College and Stoke Newington School, see here.


Data Note: The figures for A levels by sector are taken from documents for 20102011 and 2012 on the Joint Council for Qualifications web site. The figures for 2009, 2010 and 2011 are the result of combining the different types of school in the state sector. In 2012 JCQ present only one figure for the state sector.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 17/08/2012 - 08:02

Not only is the gap closing between the private sector with its more advantaged pupils but when pupils get to university comprehensive school pupils tend to outperform their equally-qualified peers from independent and grammar schools, the Sutton Trust found at the end of 2010:

leonard james's picture
Sat, 18/08/2012 - 06:18

Is this particular argument one that state school advocates should be making because it just seems like we're saying that 'intelligent children get the sam grades in our schools as less intelligent children in private schools'. The only good argument we can make is that we are providing state educated children with some form of advantage that isn't measured by examination grades without describing what said advantage is.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 18/08/2012 - 07:43

No, Leonard, that's not what's being said (although I admit that it could be interpreted that way). See Henry's other thread on this subject about the importance of comparing like with like (ie high attainers in state schools with pupils in independent schools which are highly selective eg Brighton College).

However, the point you make about some form of advantage enjoyed by state school (ie comprehensive) pupils once they reach university is an interesting one. The reasons for this are unexplored but could include less emphasis on overall results and more on analytical skills needed at university, less complacency about ability (pupils in highly selective schools might not work so hard because they think their ability is innate) and disadvantage impacting on performance. However, this is conjecture. As far as I'm aware the research into comparative performance of pupils from different schools at university looked out outcomes and didn't discuss the reasons for any difference found. This would be an fruitful area for research.

A recent report about what universities thought about undergraduates' readiness for university is summarised here:

As far as I'm aware the universities didn't differentiate between undergrads from different backgrounds - just made comments about "spoon feeding" and so on.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sat, 18/08/2012 - 08:24

No, Leonard, I don't think thats the argument. As Janet says, take a look at the article linked to. This suggests that if you compare students of a similar academic ability in state and private sectors, they get similar results - indeed Stoke Newington School does slightly better than Wellington College.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 20/08/2012 - 12:01


Firstly my issue is not with Henry's argument about Stoke Newington vs. Wellington - I have few issues with this argument provided that GCSE equivalents are not included in the 5 A*-C figures.

My issue is with Janet's argument about state school vs private school pupils at university. Sure we know that said students had similar grades before going to university but were all of these students considered to be 'high ability' before they got those GCSE/A level grades? This is important because it may be that some middle-high ability students are overachieving at private school (hence the similar grades to the state school pupils) and are then exposed at university.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 20/08/2012 - 14:36

Leonard - that's a good point. However, selective independent schools tend to cream off pupils from the highest ability range (for example, Brighton College's latest Ofsted confirms that the ability level of the students is well-above average). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that all pupils at selective independent schools are in this category just as it's wrong to assume that all grammar pupils are high attainers. The school performance tables show that grammar schools had pupils defined as middle attainers. However, as these would have passed the 11+ to gain a place I think it's safe to assume these middle attainers would be at the top of the middle band.

Perhaps an overhaul of A level is needed so it is more difficult for pupils to be spoon-fed in order to jump through the A level hoop or to use the strategy described in this week's TES whereby a pupil had worked out s/he didn't need to revise a particular area of A level because s/he had gained enough in the rest of the areas to secure a "B". Pupils who do this sort of thing will have their lack of knowledge exposed at university.

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 21/08/2012 - 11:33

I take the point that the majority of students at grammar/selective school are likely to be high ability.

I'm really having trouble describing my objections here - I think I'd be more convinced by the state does better at university argument if a group of same ability students were tracked from age 11 all the way through to the end of a particular degree subject at university (an extension of Henry's analysis). I mean two things are happening here able kids are doing less well at state schools than they could do at private school or the type of school makes no difference to grades and the state is doing a better job at prepping said kids for university - I'm not seeing the killer evidence that supports either explanation at the moment.

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