State school students outperform equally qualified private pupils at university, according to the preliminary findings of a major study.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England research, set to be released in the spring, tracked about 132,000 students who enrolled in 2007-08. It looks at how likely they are to achieve either first- or upper-second-class degrees, depending on their background and controlling for different grades.
State pupils generally do better than their private peers with the same A-level grades, even when the varying difficulty of different degree courses is taken into account.
But when schools are divided by academic performance as opposed to their funding status, there is little difference in pupil standards.
The results, which are similar to those generated by a comparable Hefce study released in 2003, were revealed at a seminar on contextual admissions hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute in London on 4 November.
Delegates warned that contextual information, which can be used to judge whether applicants from poorer backgrounds have more academic potential than their grades suggest, had to be employed more transparently.
One delegate told the seminar – held under the Chatham House rule, which forbids the identification of speakers – that it must be “absolutely clear” which measures universities were using. For example, parents wanted to know whether moving to a less advantaged postcode would gain their children an admissions advantage.
Another complained that some admissions tutors who were encouraged to use contextual data deployed them in “unscientific ways”.
The attitude of some tutors was that “ ‘10 years ago when we visited this school in Derby it was a bit rough and therefore all schools in Derby must be a bit rough’ ”.
Universities should determine the criteria used and not leave it to tutors to decide, he said.
A third delegate argued that institutions should clarify whether they were using contextual admissions to identify potential or to boost the diversity of the student body.