Private School, Public Benefit?

Earlier this week Labour announced that they would curb tax breaks for private schools if private schools didn’t offer greater support to state schools. One of the more interesting requirements that Labour would seek to place on private schools would be for them to share their expertise and resources to help state school students get into top universities. Recent research from the Institute of Education suggested that private school pupils have a large advantage in getting into the top universities. People who attended private schools were more than two and a half times more likely to gain a degree from a Russell Group University than those who attended comprehensive or grammar school and gained the same A-Level results.

Ensuring private schools help state students with university applications may help narrow the gap slightly but it falls well short of the sort of action that would get rid of the gap completely. So what kind of action would be needed to eliminate the gap? One suggestion is to guarantee an interview place for the highest performing pupils at each state school at the top university of their choice. This would certainly go some way to ensuring that those with the best grades had access to top University. However this doesn’t address the private school advantage that goes beyond university. A recent piece of research from The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that people who had attended a private school had 7% higher incomes three years after graduating compared to other people who went to the same university and had the same degree.

Some of this will be to do with the high quality of education that private schools offer but some of this will be a result of who it is that attends private school. The Social Market Foundation found a £193,700 income premium for those who attended private school. However this reduced to £57,653 once early education and family background were accounted for.  A large proportion of the private school advantage is a reflection of wider inherited privilege than intellectual achievement. Some of those who have higher incomes in later life may find this is more a result of inherited wealth than their private schooling. This may go some way to explaining why a greater proportion of the Sunday Times Rich List attended private school (44%) than attended either Oxford or Cambridge (12%).

Whilst the shocking over-representation of private school alumni amongst the UK’s ‘elite’ helps reveal the lie that the UK is a ‘meritocracy’, reforming private schools may not prove to be the best way to remedy this. Instead greater action needs be focused on tackling the systemic inequality which allows for great concentrations of wealth and weakens social mobility.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Adviser