Private school unfairness distorts admissions

24th August, 2009 3:56 pm

By Tom Ogg

Yesterday’s Sunday Times features research based at Oxford University which finds that attending private school artificially increases a students’ examination grades, over and above what the same student would get if they attended a state school.

My academic colleagues Dr Anna Zimdars, Professor Anthony Heath and I used data from the Oxford Admissions Study, which surveyed over 500 applicants to Oxford University in 2002, administered an intelligence test and survey, before following them through to their finals results.

We found that for the same probability of getting a first class degree, a privately educated student at Oxford would need eight A*s at GCSE compared with six A*s and two As for those from state schools. Note that almost every student applying to Oxford has three As at A Level, so admissions tutors often have to rely on GCSE results to distinguish between students. This finding, we argue, justifies slightly lower admissions requirements for state school students at Oxford, as a result of this ‘school type effect’.

Curiously, our admissions data for 2002 shows that Oxford tutors apparently seem to be discounting private school grades already. They do this mainly because they know that private school students have better tuition to get them through their examinations, often of a ‘teaching to the test’ nature that has no benefit other than getting private school students better grades. The Sunday Times are very selective when they quote only one of the tutors from our study who say they feel they need to “compensate for the failures of civil society”. It is more about getting students into Oxford who are most likely to benefit from the course and do well – and that means taking private school students’ grades with a pinch of salt.

This study is only about Oxford University, which is a very select and privileged group of students. What is more important are the results across the whole of the university sector, where research finds private schooling has a far more dramatic effect. For the same probability of getting a 2:1 or first class degree, private school students need a whole average grade higher than state school students: that is, for the same probability of getting a good pass in their degree, private school students require AAA whilst a state school student would only require BBB. Previously, doubts about the cause of this ‘school type effect’ have prevented any action being taken on the research. The important thing about our Oxford research, though, is that by using the intelligence test we can prove that private school student’s grades are artificially inflated over their actual underlying ability to do well in their degree – that it is the private schooling itself that causes this effect.

We hope that this research will lead to fairer admissions practices in universities across the country.

For more information on any of the research discussed above, please contact Tom at [email protected]


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