State pupils continue to outperform private ones at university

Janet Downs's picture
‘For all but those with the very highest A-level grades, state school graduates tend to have higher degree outcomes than independent school graduates with the same prior educational attainment.’

Higher Education Funding Council for England analysis of 2014 university cohort

This confirms analysis by the Sutton Trust in 2010 which went even further: students from comprehensive schools outperformed their equally-qualified peers from both independent and state grammar schools when at university.

Two further reports published in 2013 also found state pupils outperformed private ones in the degree stakes.

Commentators, however, argue that bright disadvantaged pupils should be given help so they can attend private schools in order to realize their potential. This implies state schools just aren’t up to the task.

But the HEFCE analysis and earlier research shows attending a private school does not automatically translate into a higher degree at university. Quite the opposite – the HEFCE research together with the earlier reports show there is little benefit in terms of degree quality in attending an independent school.

Mature students on a like-for-like basis outperformed their younger counterparts, the analysis found. This is despite graduates studying part-time being less likely to obtain a first or upper second class degree. The number of part-time undergraduates has fallen according to the Office for Fair Access to Higher Education (OFAHE). This appears to be linked to the hike in tuition fees – part-timers tend to be older and juggling study around family and work commitments. The OFAHE said the reduction in the number of part-time undergraduates ‘should be a significant concern for policymakers’.

HEFCE found female graduates were more likely to achieve a first or upper second degree and white graduates significantly outperform those from black or minority ethnic groups (BME). Graduates with disabilities tended to do less well than those without reported disabilities.

The most significant finding, however, is the one confirming that state pupils are likely to outperform those from independent schools (except for those with the very top grades where there was a ‘small difference’ in favour of privately-educated students).

As I said, this finding isn’t new – it should be well-known. According to a Warwick university analysis of the 1993 university cohort, the fact that ‘students who attended state schools prior to university had a significantly higher probability of graduating with a good degree class than otherwise observationally-equivalent students who had been educated in private schools’ was a ‘well-known result’.

But it isn’t ‘well-known’ because it’s ignored. It’s ignored by politicians and commentators who say state education needs an injection of private school ‘DNA’ and it’s ignored by much of the media who promote the idea that private schools are better than state ones.

The Daily Mail, predictably, downplayed the HEFCE report by claiming the data showed state schools weren’t doing enough to ‘fully develop the potential of all their pupils’ and university education, therefore, developed them further. It didn’t occur to the paper that this could also suggest the potential of privately-educated pupils peaks at 18 and then stalls. Neither did it occur the reason might be that independent schools are teaching to the test rather than preparing pupils for university study.

These reports show it isn’t necessary to attend a private school in order to gain a first or upper second degree at university. It’s isn’t even necessary to attend a state grammar – research rather undermines the argument that selection at 11 is necessary if high-ability pupils are to fulfil their potential.
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agov's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 13:46

Reality is ignored by most booze-soaked and drug-addled 'journalists' unless they can copy-paste it from a press statement.

Fortunately the main Opposition party since 2010 has provided a high-quality press service rebutting the lying education propaganda from the government . Oh, wait. It's Friday so I must be drunk and delusional.

mistemina's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 14:45

Thank you Janet.
It deeply saddens me that children going to Secondary Modern in a fully Selective County like Bucks, by extension, suffer.
That is 85% of children in Bucks are systematically being held back by the Selection System.

David Barry's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 16:12

I am not surprised by these findings Janet. In general Universities use A levels for selection as there is no obviously better method. In fact the correlation between degree results and A level results is not good. (The Robbins Commission in fact commissioned research as to whether a better selection system could be devised, and the NFER experimented with a "test of academic aptitude" They found that it correlated more or less as well as A levels so there was no practical gain to using it, other than the fact that the TAA only took three hours...)

It is easy to see that in an environment where children are intensively taught "to the test" that the results achieved will be less correlated with academic ability than a school where such intensive teaching did not take place.

It follows that admission tutors might wish, (and some do) to prefer a student with 3 "Bs" from an inner city comprehensive to a student with 2 "As" and a "B" from an independent, selective school.

Jane Eades's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 20:38

There was a research project some years ago which showed that GCSE results were a better predictor than A Levels.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 17:00

Areas surrounding deprived seaside towns in Lincolnshire still have secondary modern schools and grammar schools that together are supposed to comprise a comprehensive offer. Well they don't. Schools are in competition with each other for grades and for children. Rejection starts at 11-plus so the education system becomes too fragmented at 11 and 16 to plan ahead with any degree of certainty.

Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 18:05

To me this article and comments could be a vindication of buying private education.

If the article stated that private school students achieve better degree outcomes with the same A'level grades as state pupils, we would conclude that teaching in the state sector was superior and students were better able to maximise their outcomes there.

On the basis of the HEFCE research, private school parents would argue that with higher A'level grades their offspring achieve, gives them a more elite university place and from that an advantage in the labour market.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/09/2015 - 10:44

Nigel - It's also true that supporters of private education argue that private schools' higher A level results gain access to the more 'elite' unis (the Mail claims that as well). The Mail tried to explain this by saying it was harder to get a higher degree at Russell Group unis than other lesser establishments - the state school 'advantage', then, the Mail argues, was because state school undergrads went to these lesser establishments where higher degrees were awarded like confetti.

But how do state and private compare at these Russell Group unis? When Bristol uni (Russell Group) investigated its graduates (2011), it found state-educated students tended to outperform equally-qualified peers from private schools. Cambridge did its own analysis and found there was no 'obvious evidence that students from any educational background under- or out-perform their peers from other parts of the UK secondary education sector at Cambridge'.

In other words, educational background, private or state, made no difference to the level of degrees awarded at Cambridge.

Research by Oxford came to the same conclusion: '...those who do get in, private school students perform about as well as state school students.' Again, no difference at this elite level.

Researchers raised the question about whether those state pupils who did NOT gain a place at Oxford would have achieved the same degree as those private pupils who DID get in. It concluded the more likelihood of private school pupils actually gaining a place was 'short-term teaching effects upon the secondary'school grades of private school students'. Note the description 'short-term'. In other words, the effects didn't last.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Fri, 18/09/2015 - 21:34

Furthermore, GCSEs are 'stepping stone qualifications' to grammar schools in areas where secondary modern schools lack sixth forms. If admission tutors (I guess Oxbridge) prefer students from inner city comprehensives this might discriminate against pupils who have had to transfer into grammar schools. This is another point where selection goes bad. These tutors need to be mindful of pathways and socioeconomic context.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/09/2015 - 10:21

Nigel - you're correct the research could be read to support the idea that private education is superior to state education (the Mail does that when it says pupils at independent schools get better A level results). But it could also be read to indicate that private school pupils, once they leave with their higher A levels, lack something which does not translate into the higher degrees awarded to their equally-qualified state peers.

The research compared like-with-like (ie those with the same A level grades). Apart from the very high grades where there was a small difference in favour of undergrads from private schools, state school pupils tended to outperform those from private schools with equal A level attainment. This could indicate that pupils from independent schools tend to stall whereas pupils from state schools are better prepared to gain higher degrees.

Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 19/09/2015 - 14:01


You are right to note that at the high grades there is no significant difference. But what you don't flag up is that at independent schools very high grades are the norm. Half of A Level entries at independent schools are graded A* or A, while at state schools the equivalent figure is less than 25%.

That means that those with lower grades who don't get the top degrees actually come from well down the cohort at independent schools. Someone getting BBC or BCC for example would probably have been in a low set at a private school but would be mainstream at a state school.

To do this comparison properly you would need to control for cognitive ability.... that is a true 'like for like' would be people of the same IQ. At the moment, the comparison is most likely between some clever (but not so well prepared for the test) state school students and some less able (but better prepared for the test) private school kids.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/09/2015 - 14:44

Barry - it's unsurprising that 'very high grades' might be the norm in the top private schools but these are highly selective and choose pupils for their ability to get these high grades. State sixth forms usually have a lower bar for sixth form entry

The data measured like-for-like ie AAA students from private schools and AAA students from state schools, BBB and so on. It's wrong to say the state pupils who achieved AAA weren't as 'well-prepared' as their private school counterparts.

However, the research from Oxford and Cambridge (see my comments below) was illuminating. These universities select only those with top grades and found no difference between degree level based on prior education (ie state or private). Oxford even suggested state school pupils might have been pipped at the post by private school pupils not because the former were not prepared but their privately-educated peers had experienced teaching which only had a short-term effect (ie the teaching resulted in high A level grades but it didn't last). In other words, they were, as you suggest, prepared for the test (A level) but not for further study.

We must, however, be wary of generalising from this. It would be wrong to say the effect of teaching in all private schools doesn't last. It would be equally wrong to say all state schools don't prepare pupils well for A levels.

But one thing is becoming clearer - going to a state school is no impediment to getting a good degree. The private school 'advantage' may be short-term and not translate to higher degrees. Parents, of course, might be happy with that if their expensively-educated child gets into a prestigious university. But the country as a whole can't afford to lose the talents of high-flying pupils from the state sector.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sat, 19/09/2015 - 17:16

What do you think of this take: The out-performance at uni is because students from private school focus their energy on doing what the private school system (on the whole) knows works: creating mentor type connections with people in academia and industry so that, regardless of degree outcome, they've got a place lined up. The rest of us, who've been taught that degree classifications are important, slave away on the essays and knowledge to come out with higher degree classification (I got a 1st and the dissertation prize for example) but at interview we're beaten by those who were privately educated and have already got themselves and in. Good on them I say. Just wish someone had told me this was the real game years ago! And then they progress faster in those positions as per the Sutton Trust research in August: "“We know that graduates from less privileged backgrounds are under-represented in the top professions but today’s research shows that they face disadvantage when it comes to pay progression too." True? or No?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 20/09/2015 - 08:11

Leah - you're right to point this out. The Oxford research (see my comment above) listed arguments which had been put forward to explain why private school pupils tended to less well at uni than state-educated ones. One was the 'incentives/preference' argument which was summarised as:

'... the consequences for privileged students of doing poorly in their degree are far less serious than for working-class students and on this basis the incentives to get a good degree are lower for privileged students than for working class students.'

That was because, the argument ran, privileged students have other resources (networks etc) to fall back on if their degree isn't as high as expected. This argument is put forward by Dr John Goldthorpe who argues that advantaged parents will use their wealth to maintain their children's 'competitive edge'.

Other arguments included the 'teaching effects' theory which holds that private school pupils receive 'better' teaching (Oxford put 'better' in quotation marks underlining that this description is controversial). But the effects of this so-called 'better' teaching in independent schools could be short-term. Oxford suggested the quality of teaching including teacher qualifications, experience and motivation was a 'particularly important aspect of schooling.'

Another theory says school type has little effect - peer group influence is more important.

This research into the relative outcomes of pupils at 'elite' universities (as opposed to all universities which the Mail implies contain some whose degrees are too easily awarded) is perhaps worth a thread in its own right.

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