Response to the Higher Education Funding Council for England report, ‘Differences in degree outcomes: the effect of subject and student characteristics’

18 September 2015
Posted by Sue Gray

Today’s research report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) shows that students from state schools with grades below AAA are more likely to achieve top degrees than their privately educated counterparts with the same level of entry qualifications.

Meanwhile, White pupils are more likely to achieve a first or upper second than those from ethnic minorities and women are more likely to achieve a first or an upper second than men.

Chris Ramsey, joint Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Sub Committee and Headmaster of King’s School, Chester, said:

“The trends reported are important but, overall, this is a potentially misleading analysis. Prior attainment remains by far the strongest predictor of degree success across the entire undergraduate cohort. Independent school pupils arrive at university with twice as many A* and A grades as their state school counterparts and at this level university entrants from different school and college backgrounds achieve almost exactly the same rate of Firsts and 2.1s.

“In all key measures, including degree type, graduate level employment or further study, independent school pupils outperform state school pupils as a whole.  This is most especially the case when it comes to securing graduate-level employment.” (See Notes to Editors, below).

Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, has also commented:

“Independent schools get much more out of their pupils in terms of A-level grades. But it appears state schools aren’t, as a group, able to fully develop the potential of all their pupils.

‘So when they get to university, the independent school pupils have got there, really operating at the maximum of their potential, whereas state school pupils are capable of more development.”

In addition, HMC agrees with Alan Milburn, Chair of the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, who reported in October 2012 that:
“ type [is a] fairly blunt measure of disadvantage… The school type indicator does not take full account of the fact that some pupils who attend private schools come from poor backgrounds, while many wealthy people attend state schools. In my consultations with universities it became apparent that there may be unintended consequences if the Government and universities focus purely on these indicators”.

For example, one third of Oxford entrants from the lowest income homes come from independent schools.

Notes to Editors:
• 1. ‘Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first degree study’ (HEFCE, July 2013) found the following:

We see in Table 1 that there were 24,360 students in the 2006-07 cohort who attended an independent school prior to starting their first degree studies, and that a greater percentage of students from independent schools achieved each of the four outcomes than of students from state schools.

Table 1 Total cohort and percentage of the cohort who achieved each of the four outcomes, split by school type

Independent school State school Unknown
Starting cohort 24,360 184,580 16,830
Degree-qualified 89.1% 82.4% 72.3%
First or upper second 64.9% 52.7% 43.2%
Degree & employed or studying 76.9% 71.5% 62.6%
Degree & graduate job or study 60.4% 46.8% 41.1%