The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) claimed in its recent reporting that 82% of graduates getting firsts or upper-seconds in 2013-14 came from state schools compared with 73% from independent schools.
An analysis of HEFCE’s data published by Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham, has found that these figures are the wrong way around. In fact, it was 82% of graduates from independent schools that had been awarded good degrees.
The figures were widely quoted in September 2015 when the HEFCE report was released, under headlines such as; ‘Top degree? You probably went to a state school’.
The report was quietly altered after the error was privately to HEFCE’s attention, but they still have not issued a public correction.
Professor Smithers said: “It is extraordinary that an influential body like HEFCE should have got its figures wrong and failed to publicly rectify them after being alerted to the error. So long as these figures are out there uncorrected, they will continue to influence both perceptions of schools and how universities are expected to go about recruiting students.
“I call on HEFCE to set the record straight so that everyone understands the true picture.”
Although HEFCE has changed the figures in the report, it still repeats that state school pupils are four percentage points ahead rather than nine points behind.
A likely explanation for this contradiction is that HEFCE is calculating what state school students would have achieved had they the same entry qualifications as independent school students. But they did not.
Three times as many of the students from independent school pupils achieved three or more A grades at A-level. Less than half the state school entrants achieved at least three grade Cs.
Professor Smithers said: “While statistical alchemy may be able to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point advantage, ultimately university admissions tutors have to deal with real people not statistical constructs.”
HEFCE has provided, for the first time, in its 2015/21 Paper degree performance for the whole range of entry qualifications. This enables the claim that state school pupils do better at university by entry qualification to be set in context.
At the heart of the confusion over the relative degree performance of students from state and independent schools is what entry qualifications are included and how many have achieved at these levels.
For three A-levels at grade C and above, 85% of both state and independent schools students were awarded good degrees.
Below three A grades, but with at least three ‘C’s, state school students were ahead by 83 to 80%, or 2,200 students out of the total entry from state schools of 197,350.
But when all entry qualifications and the proportions achieving them are taken into account, the students from independent schools were nine percentage points ahead.