Two new reports confirm that state school pupils outperform independent ones at university

Janet Downs's picture
State school pupils outperform privately-educated pupils with the same A levels at university - that was the conclusion of two university internal reports discovered by the Guardian  using the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the Guardian, one study from Cardiff University said: "All other factors being held constant, students from independent schools tend to do less well than students from comprehensive schools."

The Cardiff report confirms the Sutton Trust 2010 research which found that comprehensive school pupils were likely to outperform their equally-qualified peers from independent and grammar schools at university.

The second study, from Oxford Brookes University, came to a similar conclusion. According to the Guardian, it found that state school pupils and those from further education colleges were less likely to drop out. They also tended to get a good degree (a first or 2:1) than students from independent schools. And the gap between them grew wider for students with A level grades of CCC or below.

The Oxford Brookes report doesn’t appear to differentiate between state pupils from grammars or comprehensives so it can’t be said to confirm the Sutton Trust’s findings about the superior performance of ex-comprehensive pupils when compared with equally-qualified pupils from independent or grammar schools. However, it does confirm that state-educated pupils are more likely to achieve better degrees than privately-educated ones.

Some comments on the Guardian page suggest this confirms Sir Michael Wilshaw’s recent comments that comprehensive schools are failing the brightest pupils and when they eventually get to university they have catching up to do. But it doesn’t necessarily follow. Both reports looked at students who entered university with the same grades and, yes, it could be argued that the ex-comprehensive school pupils had underperformed at school. But it could equally be argued that those from independent schools had either been spoon-fed to pass the exam or had some superficial polish which initially impressed but was not reflected in the standard of degree.

Or it could be that comprehensive school pupils are better-prepared for university and more able to work independently.

But this is speculation. It may be that the reports suggest possible reasons for the mismatch between the performance of state-educated pupils and those educated privately. But this will be difficult to confirm unless the universities or the Guardian release them into the public domain.

However, it should be remembered that although the OECD found that UK private schools outperformed state schools in the 2009 PISA reading tests the situation was reversed when socio-economic background was taken into account. UK state schools outperformed private ones.

Perhaps it’s time for university admission tutors to consider context when offering places at university.


The Telegraph reported the findings of Higher Education Funding Council research into "the degree outcomes and employment circumstances of young UK-domiciled students starting a full-time first degree course in 2006-07 at a higher education institution".  This found that privately-education students were more likely to obtain a first/2:1 degree than state-educated ones.  They were also more likely to be in a top graduate job.  The latter finding is unsurprising - privately-educated students are more likely to be able to access networks unavailable to state-educated students.  The research also made the unsurprising finding that higher tariff points (based on A levels, AS levels and Scottish Highers) translated into a higher quality degree.  The research looked at 24,360 students from independent schools, 184,580 from state schools and 16,830 students whose education was "unknown".  Such a large group of "unknown" casts doubt on the research's conclusions.

That said, one interesting finding was "Students in receipt of disabled students allowance performed better than those  who identify as having a disability but were not in receipt of disabled students allowance."

This suggests that reduced financial worries have a bearing on the degree obtained.  University fees have since risen and we are now in a recession.  Financial concerns are likely to loom larger than they did in 2006 - and students with wealthier parents are more likely to be cushioned against these than students from less wealthy backgrounds.



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