Hefce mixes up its figures; but state school pupils still outperform independent pupils at university

Note: There is a correction to the original HEFCE research as highlighted by the Centre for Education & Employment Research, University of Buckingham. Further details about the transposition error and a statement from Hefce can be found here.

Commenting on new HEFCE research* into some of the factors behind degree success in higher education, Robin Naylor, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, said:

“This important report confirms previous findings for university entry cohorts over more than two decades. It is particularly striking that, despite huge changes over this period at all levels of education, there is remarkable consistency over time in the impact of a student’s previous schooling on their performance at university.

In work we published [Jeremy Smith and Robin Naylor, 2001] on 1993 graduates, our evidence indicated that in order to admit students of equal potential to do well at university, HE selectors should, typically, require lower grades from applicants from state schools. The evidence presented in this latest HEFCE Report carries the same message: A-level achievement alone is not a good measure of higher education potential – the type of school attended also matters.

The reasons for the differential performance at university by school type need to be explored further, but the most convincing interpretation of the result is that two factors influence achievement at the end of secondary school: pupil characteristics (such as academic potential) and school inputs. To the extent that independent school inputs are more productive in terms of A-level achievement, students from state schools who obtain the same A-level scores as those from independent schools will, on average, be of higher potential.

If performance at university depends largely on the student’s underlying potential, with school inputs providing a temporary boost at A-level only, then on average the state-school educated will do better at university than those who attended independent schools.

Few would argue for a crude admissions rule that sets a lower prior qualification hurdle for state school applicants. But an admissions policy based simply on a uniform A-level hurdle is equally crude and misguided. Taking account of school context is important both for fairness and in order to admit the most able candidates.

In an ideal world, universities would consider each applicant on his or her merits taking all relevant information into account. In the real world, selectors should at least embrace the use of the now rich sources of contextual data available to them.”

 *HEFCE research full report: “Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings”

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