School Type and Eventual Degree Class

In 2002 Jeremy Smith and Robin Naylor of the University of Warwick conducted a study into the determinants of degree performance at UK universities. Their study confirmed that the internationally recognized phenomenon whereby "children from more advantaged class backgrounds have higher levels of educational attainment than children from less-advantaged class backgrounds" persists at university level in the United Kingdom. The authors noted "a very well-determined and monotonically positive effect defined over Social Classes I to V" whereby, for both men and women, "ceteris paribus, academic performance at university is better the more advantaged is the student's home background". but they also observed that a student educated at an independent school was on average 6 per cent less likely to receive a first or an upper second class degree than a student from the same social class background, of the same gender, who had achieved the same A-level score at a state school. The averaged effect was described as very variable across the social class and A-level attainment of the candidates; it was "small and not strongly significant for students with high A-level scores" (i.e. for students at the more selective universities) and "statistically significant mostly for students from lower occupationally-ranked social-class backgrounds". Additionally, the study could not take into account the effect of a slightly different and more traditional subject mix studied by independent students at university on university achievement. Despite these caveats, the paper attracted much press attention. The same study found wide variations between independent school, suggesting that students from a few of them were in fact significantly more likely to obtain the better degrees than state students of the same gender and class background having the same A-level score.

In 2011, a subsequent study led by Richard Partington at Cambridge University showed that A-level performance is "overwhelmingly" the best predictor for exam performance in the earlier years ("Part I") of the undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Partington's summary specified that "questions of school background and gender" ... "make only a marginal difference and the pattern - particularly in relation to school background - is in any case inconsistent."

A study commissioned by the Sutton Trust and published in 2010 focussed mainly on the possible use of US-style SAT tests as a way of detecting a candidate's academic potential. Its findings confirmed those of the Smith & Naylor study in that it found that privately educated pupils who, despite their educational advantages, have only secured a poor A-level score, and who therefore attend less selective universities, do less well than state educated degree candidates with the same low A-level attainment. In addition, as discussed in the 2010 Buckingham report "HMC Schools: a quantitative analysis", because students from state schools tended to be admitted on lower A-level entry grades, relative to entry grades it could be claimed that these students had improved more. A countervailing finding of the Sutton Trust study was that for students of a given level of A-level attainment it is almost twice as difficult to get a first at the most selective universities than at those on the other end of the scale. Independent sector schools regularly dominate the top of the A-level league tables, and their students are more likely to apply to the most selective universities; as a result independent sector students are particularly well represented at these institutions, and therefore only the very ablest of them are likely to secure the best degrees.

In 2013 the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a study noting, amongst other things, that a greater percentage of students who had attended an independent school prior to university achieved a first or upper second class degree compared with students from state schools. Out of a starting cohort of 24,360 candidates having attended an independent school and 184,580 having attended a state school, 64.9 per cent of the former attained a first or upper second class degree, compared to 52.7 per cent of the latter. However, no statistical comparisons of the two groups (State vs Independent) were reported, with or without controls for student characteristics such as entry qualifications, so no inferences can be drawn on the relative performance of the two groups. The stand-out finding of the study was that Independent School students over-achieved in obtaining graduate jobs and study, even when student characteristics were allowed for (sex, ethnicity, school type, entry qualifications, area of study).

In 2015, the UK press widely reported the outcome of research suggesting that graduates from state schools that have attained similar A level grades go on to achieve higher undergraduate degree classes than their independent school counterparts. The figures, based on the degree results of all students who graduated in 2013/14, show that 82 per cent of state school pupils got firsts or upper seconds compared with 73 per cent of those from independent schools. State school students who scored two Bs and a C at A-level did on average eight per cent better at degree level than their privately educated counterparts.