Bright pupils from lower-performing schools do better at university, study finds

Irena Barker

Students with the same A-level grades are more likely to do well at university if they were “top of the class” in their school, a major new report has found.

Pupils who performed well in relation to their sixth-form peers are more likely to gain a top degree than those with A-level results that were average or below average for their school, the report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) says.

“On average, someone who gains BBB at a school where the average A-level score is CCC will do better in higher education than someone who gains BBB at a school where the average is AAA," it says.

Figures showed the likelihood of someone with three B grades receiving a first or upper second was 16 percentage points higher among students who were top performers at their school, compared to pupils with the same grades who ranked among the lowest in their school.

Teachers’ leaders said they believed the phenomenon was down to confidence.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s the old adage that success breeds success.

“The success in itself and the praise they receive will build their confidence and get them to believe in themselves.”

He recalled his own memories of life at grammar school, where pupils who ranked poorly in the hothouse atmosphere did not go to university at all because they felt they were not good enough.

“If they had been in a different school, they might have shone,” he said.

The findings echo those of a report from the London School of Economics last autumn, which revealed that primary pupils’ confidence increased with their class ranking, which had positive knock-on effects on performance at secondary school.

Today's report, which looked at the degree outcomes of 130,000 young university entrants who entered full-time degree courses in autumn 2007, also confirmed previous studies suggesting that pupils at state schools do better than privately educated students, when they hold the same grades.

For example, state school pupils holding three B grades were 9 percentage points more likely to gain a first or an upper second than someone from a private school with the same grades.

The figures also highlighted some stark differences between the degree outcomes of different young people depending on their ethnic background.

Overall, 72 per cent of white students who entered higher education with grades BBB gained one of the two top degrees, but this sank to just 56 per cent for Asian and 53 per cent for black students.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds were also found to have “consistently lower” degree outcomes than those with the same A-level results from richer areas.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, said he was not “unduly concerned” that the report showed state school pupils tended to do better at university, as the figures omitted dentistry and medicine candidates.

He added that the differences were most marked among private school students with middling sets of grades.

“There is a cause for concern here, but only a small minority of pupils from our schools get these grades.

“What it tells you is that we are teaching these pupils very well at A-level. You would wish to see universities work harder to maintain the level they reached at 18, through much better tracking, testing and teaching.

“At some universities, they only mark one piece of work a term.”

He added that the same improvements in support needed to be made for groups at the other end of the social spectrum who were failing to match their A-level promise at university.

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of Hefce, added that the issues the report addressed were “complex” and would serve to “inform debate”  and policy decisions about the use of contextual data in university admissions.

She said: “There is a whole raft of processes out there already, we are saying look at what you are doing, and see if that needs to be addressed or refined in any way.”

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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