State school pupils are gaining places at the UK’s most selective universities with lower grades on average than their independent peers, new figures show.
An analysis of A-level grades held by students entering Russell Group universities shows that students from state schools have significantly weaker grades on average than their private contemporaries.
More than half (52 per cent) of the qualifications held by independent school pupils entering 19 of the group’s 24 research-intensive universities in 2010-11 were either A* or A at A level, but this fell to 42 per cent among state entrants.
The data were compiled by BestCourse4me.com, a student information website. The analysis examined only A levels taken by at least 50 pupils and used the latest available Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.
State pupils were also more likely to gain places at Russell Group members while holding B or C grades. These qualifications made up 24.3 per cent of the marks received by Russell Group state entrants compared with 18.2 per cent among their private peers.
The attainment shortfall among state pupils was less marked, but still apparent, at the five Russell Group members that are least popular with private pupils: the universities of Cardiff, Sheffield, Liverpool and Glasgow, plus Queen’s University Belfast.
Some private schools have threatened to boycott universities that are shown to discriminate against independent school pupils, while others have criticised calls by Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, for universities to increase their use of “contextual data” to help them admit more bright students from poorer backgrounds, even if they have lower grades.
While the Office for Fair Access does not set universities official targets for state entrants, it does challenge them to do more to promote applications from poor students.
This pressure might explain why state pupils have been admitted with lower grades, said Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge.
“Universities are very alive to these targets, contrary to what is often reported,” Professor Vignoles said. “When universities have good-quality state school students, albeit with slightly lower grades, you can see there is a willingness to get them in.”
She added: “Private schools are very effective at getting good grades for people whose ability is a bit lower, whose degree performance is not as good as people (from state schools) with the same grades. Admissions officers will take this into account when making offers.”
Professor Vignoles also said that the data do not show that universities discriminate against private pupils by demanding higher grades as they focus on attainment on entry rather than offers made to students.
“Many of these universities are offering a standard AAB at A level,” she said.
“State school pupils might be just scraping this and private school pupils gaining it with something to spare - everyone might be meeting the standard.”