Durham study finds private school pupils have two-thirds of GCSE grade advantage

By Ryan Gould

A study carried out by Durham University has found that independently-educated pupils receive a boost equivalent to two years of extra schooling compared to state school pupils.

The findings, which were published in The Guardian two weeks ago, found that independent school pupils in England gained an advantage worth nearly two-thirds of a GCSE grade after the effects of income, gender, and prior attainment were accounted for.

“This difference equates to a gain of about two years’ normal progress and suggests that attending an independent school is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16,” the research says.

Funded by the Independent Schools Council, the research suggests that the attainment gap between state-schooled and independently-schooled pupils is larger than initially thought.

Talking to The Guardian, Robert Coe, Professor of Education at Durham, spoke of unexplained differences between pupils, stating: “It is always difficult to unpick the causes of any differences—and we think it is unlikely to be purely an effect of better teaching in independent schools.

“But we find a clear and significant difference in the GCSEs achieved that is not explained by any of the factors we can account for,” Coe said.

The research also remarks of “unobserved factors” that could affect the differences in GCSE results, and as such, “due to these limitations the results must be interpreted with caution,” it noted.

Professor Tom Ward, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Education at Durham, told Palatinate: “Durham University values academic freedom and is committed to promoting and positively encouraging free expression, debate and independent research.

“At Durham, we are actively engaged in a range of high-quality recruitment activities to continue to encourage and support applications from the brightest and best students, irrespective of their background or school type, who have the ability to be considered for entry.

“The latest HESA statistics for the 2014/15 academic year report that 63 per cent of UK first degree entrants aged under 21 at Durham University were from state schools and colleges. This follows a significant improvement from 2011/12 when the figure was 59.2 per cent.

“For the current academic year, we are committed to investing £3.25m on outreach where there is evidence of effectiveness. The University has a track record of investing one of the highest amounts in the sector,” Professor Ward concluded.

The University also noted that its Supported Progression scheme continues to be popular, attracting large numbers of applicants. The scheme recruits high-achieving students from the North-East, Cumbria, and West Yorkshire who might not have otherwise applied to Durham.

The University noted that the number of entrants to the University from the Supported Progression scheme “more than trebled” between 2011/12 and 2015/16, and is “set to grow further.” In 2011/12, there were 31 entrants into Durham via the scheme; in 2015/16, there were 104.

Additionally, the University continues to work in collaboration with the Sutton Trust by delivering an expanded programme of Summer Schools as well as a Teachers’ Conference. The Sutton Trust works to improve social mobility by providing educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds.

Durham collaborates with four other North East universities in the Raising Aspiration Project, which extends to almost 16,000 students in the region.

As part of a basket of contextual information, the University provides its admissions selectors with an indicator of whether the average school performance where the applicant took their GCSEs is above or below the national average.

Photograph: Richard Huish

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