Four in ten top scholars educated privately

Sutton Trust highlights domination of sector and calls for change. Rebecca Attwood reports

October 8, 2009

More leading scholars than vice-chancellors are privately educated, a study has found.

The Sutton Trust investigated the scholastic backgrounds of more than 1,700 fellows of the Royal Society and the British Academy. Its survey concludes that privately educated scholars are over-represented and, if trends persist, this looks set to continue.

The education charity has found that 40 per cent of today's fellows attended independent schools. This is a higher proportion than among vice-chancellors ( per cent) and MPs (32 per cent), but lower than for doctors (51 per cent) and judges (70 per cent).

It also reveals that more than half of the fellows studied at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge.

There are differences between the two societies: British Academy fellows are significantly more likely to have been independently schooled (47 per cent) and to have gone to Oxbridge (68 per cent) than their Royal Society counterparts, for whom the figures are 38 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

At the institutional level, Cambridge dominates the Royal Society, accounting for 34 per cent of fellows compared with Oxford's 13 per cent.

The vast majority of state-educated fellows attended selective grammar schools - just 0.5 per cent were educated in non-selective state schools.

Meanwhile, a small group of ten schools - seven of them independent - produced more than 10 per cent of today's fellows. Eton tops the list with 22.

Differences between disciplines also emerged. Experts in the history of art, philosophy or classical antiquity are the most likely to be privately educated.

The proportion of leading scholars educated at independent schools is 42 per cent, exactly the same as the proportion of private-school pupils admitted by Oxbridge in 1966.

Many of today's fellows went to university during the 1960s, when Oxford and Cambridge educated a far higher proportion of university students in the UK.

But what does the future hold? In an attempt to predict the educational backgrounds of 2050's top scientists and scholars, the Sutton Trust examined recent GCSE, A-level and university entrance figures.

Bleak outlook

It concludes that the outlook is bleak for bright students from poor backgrounds: the report says private-school pupils are up to five times more likely to achieve an A* grade at GCSE in core academic subjects, and obtain more than 33 per cent of A grades in key A levels such as physics, chemistry and economics.

It warns: "Current trends in student intakes to leading research universities suggest that independent-school pupils will continue to be over-represented among the next generation of leading scientists and other scholars."

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: "Students from the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent of children, are substantially more likely to succeed in influential walks of life.

"It must be a priority to provide today's bright non-privileged young people with equivalent chances to their better-off peers."

Sir Peter added that this means giving them the opportunity to study core academic subjects at GCSE and A level, as well as raising their aspirations towards the most highly selective university courses.

"We must also ensure that inspirational teachers in shortage subjects such as physics, maths and foreign languages are encouraged to teach in schools serving less well-off communities," he said.


- Tom Foxon, professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

"I was the first in my family to go to university. My secondary school had a scientist as headmaster, so science was very much encouraged.

"I took the 11-plus, which enabled me to go to grammar school. The most difficult thing for my parents was the cost of the uniform.

"At university I was self-sufficient, since my grant was £300 per year and my parents' income about £1,000 per year.

"This made attending university much easier in reality than for today's students - but then the student population was much smaller as a fraction of the total population."

- Tariq Modood, professor in the department of sociology, University of Bristol

"My secondary school was Aylestone Secondary Modern in Brent, London, which I attended from 1964 to 1971. I failed the 11-plus and so was assigned to this school, which became a comprehensive in the late 1960s. I went on to Durham University in 1971.

"In doing so, I was the first person to go to university directly from Aylestone in its 14-year history. Most of my teachers did not have a degree or know anything about universities, so I had to research the sector myself without any assistance."

- Lord May of Oxford, professor in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, and former president of the Royal Society

"My secondary school was Sydney Boys' High School. It was the first secondary school established in Sydney, and was essentially a state grammar. It had a superb set of teachers, including a remarkable chemistry teacher who taught no fewer than eight fellows of the Royal Society (including one Nobel laureate).

"The same chemistry teacher coached the track team, which won the state-school championship 28 of the 33 years he coached the team.

"As in the UK, a misguided Government disestablished most of the selective state schools, with the result that private schools were academically strengthened - just like the UK."

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