David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s been a bit of concern about the plight of independent school students in applying to university.

The Telegraph for instance, on just one day last October reported that “top private schools” are seeing their Oxbridge success rate plummet – and reported with barely concealed horror revealed that “state school pupils are now more likely to get a place” at Cambridge than their privately educated peers.

If you’re one of the round about 94 per cent of people in the UK who attended a state school, it can be difficult to manage much sympathy here. Private school pupils are already over-represented proportionally at university, and particularly so at Oxbridge and some other selective providers.

Squaring this perceived reality with the rhetoric around parents withdrawing students from an independent school to take A level exams at a state provider of FE college is difficult. And data is hard to come by.

With the help of friends at UCAS, I’ve been pulling together data on the experiences private school students face in applying to university. This isn’t yet the whole picture – I’ll be looking at provider level data for 2022 when it becomes later in the week.

Likely outcome

Broadly speaking, applicants do one of three things – accept a place at their firm choice, accept a place at their insurance choice, or rethink their initial and back up plans by deciding to do something else, generally via clearing.

In 2022 some 76.25 per cent of private school applicants who were placed ended up at their first choice – only FE college applicants (77.19 per cent) did better.

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Proportionally this is slightly above a 15 year trend of a mild decline in proportion and number getting to their first choice – a little better than the first pandemic year (2020, 72.10%) but substantially worse than 2021 (84.98%).

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Is A level performance the key?

Private school students do better in A level than counterparts in state school. Opinions as to why are mixed – some feel private school students get better teaching and/or resources, others suspect private school students are just naturally better at exams, and there are also those who call various forms of shenanigans.

Plotting achieved A level scores for placed UCAS applicants from each school type, and showing broad destinations, throws up a few interesting insights. Here 18 points is equivalent to three A levels at an A* – rare even in private schools before 2020 but since then the modal grade.

The colours on this plot represent very broad acceptance routes – firm, insurance, or unplaced (here this can be anything from not getting a place at all through to clearing or RPA). What’s striking is quite how many private school applicants, especially at the higher end of the grade spectrum, are either not getting in to university or accessing higher education by these other routes – a little over half each year, broadly in line with other types of school.

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I say “striking”, but I suspect the thing that immediately got your attention was the huge numbers of independent school students that got 18 points or more in 2021 and (still) in 2022. A part of this is linked to a rise in the total number of applicants from private schools – without further data I’m tempted to speculate the lack of travelling/internship options during the pandemic saw more applicants seek and accept university placement.

But even given that, the fact remains that the immediate outcomes for the most successful applicants are in similar proportions, year on year.

Or predicted grades?

One popular narrative is that independent school applicants owe a part of their success to the enthusiastically optimistic grade predictions made by their teachers. It’s certainly troubling that some 24 per cent of of them were predicted those three A*s at A level in 2022.

However the usual plot of prediction accuracy (the difference between predicted and actual points – here a positive value shows under-prediction, and a negative value shows over-prediction) shows something closer to a normal distribution in recent years, and the two pre-pandemic years saw sustained under-prediction. Whatever the problem with private school and A levels is – and you can compare to other settings using the graph on the bottom – over-prediction is not it.

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Indeed, high attainment was under-predicted by private school pupils by about 2,000 in 2021. Given that teachers were responsible for both predicted and awarded grades in that year, this is rather a surprise.

The pandemic experience does seem to have had the wider impact of making teacher predictions more accurate – most likely because two years of teachers effectively setting actual grades has provided some valuable experience.

So what is going on?

Sitting A levels in the safe, controlled, well resourced, environment that is the modern independent school is likely to get the best performance out of any pupil that has those chances. Conversely, juggling A levels, work, and caring responsibilities in poor-quality housing is likely to negatively impact the academic performance of most. As with much in life, if your parents can pay more you get quite the advantage academically.

Structural changes to university admissions process (such as post qualification assessment, which would actually have favoured independent school students) are not going to change this – indeed, the fairest admissions process probably has the least possible weight placed on A level results. Good luck getting that to fly politically.

2 responses to “Independent schools and university entry

  1. “If you’re one of the round about 94 per cent of people in the UK who attended a state school, it can be difficult to manage much sympathy here.”

    If the key stage 4 attainment results were better, this statement might applicable to ages 16-18. Due to the very large numbers of students failing to achieve 5 or more GCSEs at grade 5 or higher, however, it isn’t applicable. Only around 60-70% of the population attend a 6th form at either state or independent schools and a large number of this age group are not in either employment or full time education, and who have little if any prospects of aspiring to higher education. (If any group is deserving of sympathy it may be this one). The proportion of A-level and equivalent entries attending independents is around 15-18%.

    “Private school students do better in A level than counterparts in state school. Opinions as to why are mixed – some feel private school students get better teaching and/or resources, others suspect private school students are just naturally better at exams, and there are also those who call various forms of shenanigans.”

    Students are not randomly allocated to state or independent schools. Either directly (an entrance exam) or indirectly (more likely to be children of better educated parents), independent schools start off with a higher proportion of pupils with good key stage 4 results. This is an argument for evaluating schools on the basis of ‘value added’. As far as it is possible to make up necessary ground in the first year of a University course, it is also an argument for basing admission to selective Universities on value added as well.

  2. This is an interesting analysis of the very good UCAS database but there are some issues to consider when looking at previous education background:

    1. A large number of applicants are always classified as having an unknown (‘other’) education background. In the 2022 figures presented here, more than 100,000 of the 19 year old entrants are in this category. It doesn’t seem right to class someone who finished at a school or college in summer and who applies via UCAS in this category.

    2. The categorisation of schools between academy/state maintained/grammar is a bit confusing because many selective 11-18 schools (in the grammar) category are academies and because many 16-18 academies are selective. Also some 11-18 schools are non selective (on educational grounds) at age 11 but highly selective at 16. It’s complicated but so’s life.

    3, The distribution of colleges between the FE college/sixth form college/16-19 academy categories has changed quite a bit in the last 6 years as a result of 70 college-to-college mergers, 10 of which combined FE and sixth form colleges plus 30 sixth form college conversions to become 16-19 academies.

    4. Perhaps the most serious issue in using previous education institution in HE admissions for young adults at age 18/19 is the fact that so many people change institution at 16. Two years at A level and Level 3 make a massive difference to education prospects but the previous decade also matters. When it comes to data about independent schools, there’s a visible transfer out of the private sector into state sixth forms which explains the fact that the Independent Schools Council reports 49,500 students in Year 11 and 43,000 in Year 13 (page 26, 2022 ISC census)

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