Cambridge study details state school students’ ‘advantage’ over private school peers

University of Cambridge’s examinations arm finds independent school-leavers at Russell Group institutions are a third less likely to get a good degree than state school students with similar A-level results

November 5, 2015
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Students who went to a private school are significantly less likely to get a good degree than state school students with similar A-level results, says a study conducted by the University of Cambridge’s examinations arm.

Research by Cambridge Assessment found that, in Russell Group universities, private school-leavers were about a third less likely to achieve a first or a 2:1 than state school students with similar prior attainment.

In non-Russell Group universities, the chances of private school-leavers achieving a good degree were nearly halved compared with comparable state school students.

The research, published in the Oxford Review of Education and being presented in Glasgow this week at the annual conference of the Association for Educational Assessment – Europe, reaches similar conclusions to a recent study conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Hefce was forced to apologise for wrongly stating that, in 2013-14, 82 per cent of state-school leavers who graduated from English universities achieved a first or a 2:1, compared with 73 per cent of independent school students.

In fact, the reverse is true.

Hefce stood by its finding that, when factors such as prior attainment are controlled for, state school students have an unexplained advantage. But many more independent school students achieve the highest A-level grades.

Like the Hefce research, the Cambridge Assessment study drew on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. But it draws on results for students who graduated in 2012-13, not 2013-14; it looks at the UK, not England; and it is based on a different methodology.

Authors Carmen Vidal Rodeiro and Nadir Zanini, from Cambridge Assessment’s research division, say that previous research suggests potential explanations for the differential outcomes.

It could be that the elevated social class position of many private school students means that they have less incentive to perform well at university, the study says; or it could be that they have received more effective teaching at school, enabling them to enter higher education despite having “less underlying academic potential”.

The main focus of the Cambridge Assessment research is the effectiveness of the A* grade at A level, which was introduced in 2010, as a predictor of university performance.

The study says students with at least one A* grade were about 40 per cent more likely to get a first or 2:1 compared with students who did not receive an A*, once other factors were controlled for.

Students with two A*s had a similar advantage over students with only one, and students with three A*s enjoyed a further advantage.

The authors say that this demonstrates how a more differentiated grading system “can be efficient in terms of student admissions at university, especially in the most oversubscribed courses and higher education institutions”. 

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents heads of leading independent schools worldwide, highlighted that the report excludes candidates taking four-year courses such as medicine, and students with alternative qualifications such as a pre-U.

For independent schools, this would “be a relatively large set of pupils, and arguably some of our strongest candidates, introducing significant bias into the research”, the HMC said.

“In the real world, more independent school pupils get A*s in the first place, and overall get better degrees,” said Chris Ramsey, universities spokesman for the HMC and the Girls’ Schools Association, and headmaster of King’s School, Chester. “Previous, more thorough research shows it is wrong to conclude that more than a tiny number – around 1 per cent – of state school pupils entering at the same level will do better at university.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Though interesting this is not at all surprising. These findings need careful interpretation not to fall into a trap of flawed conclusion. What will be more useful and interesting is to see if private school pupils with an average degree (say 2:2) from Russell Group University have life time earnings which are far greater than those of state school pupils with better performance (2:1 or greater) in similar degrees. The data reported in this news item merely shows that while it is enough for private school pupils to 'get into' a top University to ensure good career prospects, for state school pupils it is not good enough that they have made it to a good university unless their own performance is also very good. Thus the findings of the study reinforce the fact that barriers to social mobility exist and state school pupils have to 'invest' a lot more of effort than their 'private school' peers. Similar results are found in the case of gender in many countries - girls on average need to invest in many more years of education and have to perform a lot better to have any reasonable chance of competing for jobs than boys. Hence, tertiary enrolment and completion in many countries tend to be dominated by women. That does not mean gender equality is not an issue. Quite the opposite indeed.