Students who went to independent schools are about a third less likely to get a top degree at a leading university than their state-educated counterparts with similar A-level results, new research suggests.
The finding – based on those receiving a first or 2:1 degree at Russell Group institutions – is expected to fuel the debate around whether university applications from state school pupils should be favoured over those from independent school pupils.
The issue was thrown into the spotlight earlier this week when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) admitted making an error in a September report which suggested independent school pupils did worse at university, when in fact they do better overall, if students with all levels of prior attainment are included.
The authors of today's research made the discovery after setting out to look at how effective the A* grade at A-level is as a predictor of university performance.
They also found that students from all schools with one A* grade were nearly one and a half times more likely to achieve a first-class degree at a Russell Group university than students who did not achieve any A*s.
This, they said, confirmed the importance of a grading system with a high degree of differentiation between students.
The research, produced by Cambridge Assessment – a department of the University of Cambridge – has just been published in the Oxford Review of Education and is being presented at the AEA Europe conference in Glasgow from today.
One of the report’s two authors, Carmen Vidal Rodeiro, said: “Students from independent schools were less likely to achieve either a first-class degree or at least an upper-second-class degree than students from comprehensive schools with similar prior attainment.”
The researchers said previous studies suggested two reasons for the finding: private school students may have lower incentives to perform well at university and therefore may invest more effort in social life rather than academic work; or they may have been "coached" at school and subsequently struggle when they get to university.
But Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University downplayed the significance of the findings.
He said: “The most important thing to understand is that overall, independently educated pupils enter university with better qualifications and do better than state school pupils.
"This new research focuses yet again on a small percentage of students, is less comprehensive and has produced results which are a sideshow and miss the real point.”