Opinion: Who has the edge at university?

by Geoff Ryan13 Nov 2015

A report was recently published on British research findings into the relative university performance of students from independent and public schools in the UK.

The findings emerged from a study of whether a new scoring system for British ‘A-levels’ was helpful in ranking students for university entrance.

According to the study, students from British independent schools underperform at university relative to students educated in public schools who achieved similar Year 12 results.

In broaching the question as to the reasons for this apparent tertiary underperformance of students educated at independent schools, the British researchers note suggestions from other studies. And unfortunately they are suggestions only: these explanations are not evidence-based.

One suggestion is that ‘private school students have lower incentives to perform well at university’ and ‘therefore invest more effort in social-life than academic work’.

The assumption is that, as many independent school students have privileged backgrounds and greater parental resources and networks to fall back on, they aren’t as hungry for good grades as students from public schools.

This is an extraordinary claim to make, not least because it makes inferences about the academic motivation of students from independent schools that are simply not supported by other British research.

The Sutton Trust’s 2009 report, The Educational Background of Leading Scientists and Scholars, published in 2009, found 42% of Britain’s ‘most prestigious scientists and scholars’ were educated at independent schools. In these fields, privilege or no privilege, reputation still depends on academic grunt.

A joint study by the Sutton Trust and the British Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2012 found high-achieving students who applied to enter the most academically selective universities were influenced by the ‘prestige and academic excellence’ of tertiary institutions.

An important factor in these students’ choice of university was ‘the idea of challenging themselves’. High achievers from independent schools were 18 times more likely to make two or more applications to the most selective institutions over other institutions.

I have worked in the independent schools sector for most of my career and I readily admit I look for the positive when it comes to independent school students. Even accounting for my bias, these findings indicate that students from independent schools are likely to be as academically ambitious as their counterparts in public schools.

It cannot be assumed that any performance gap at university for students from independent and public schools with the same Year 12 scores relates to lower academic aspirations on the part of students from independent schools. (I’ll address the supposed distraction of ‘social-life’ later.)

A second suggestion offered to explain the performance differential is that private school students ‘suffer academically once intensive coaching and academic support is removed’.

This suggestion reflects the most common reason proposed by Australian researchers who have found a small but significant gap in the first-year university results of students from independent schools and those from students from government schools with the same Year 12 results.

Some researchers claim that the Year 12 results of independent schools are ‘inflated’ by the quality of teaching in those schools, or that students from government schools are more resilient because they have had to fight harder for their achievement.

As you might expect, I readily agree that students in independent schools are exposed to quality teaching. However, I would argue that quality teaching does not mean ‘nannying’ students – it means stretching them and challenging them and inspiring students to realise their potential for tertiary study.

That stretching process goes well beyond the academic curriculum to students’ co-curriculum interests. And I know from keeping an eye on the progress of alumni that many, even most independent school students continue their extra-curricular activity in community service, social justice projects, debating, music, theatre and sports throughout their university careers and beyond.

This extra-curricular engagement may be what British researchers call ‘social-life’, but it could just as well be described as an essential element of holistic education or as development of the whole person or, quite simply, as an indicator of a balanced life.

Certainly extra-curricular engagement is valued by those who nominate or choose Rhodes Scholars, and by many employers, too. Yet it never rates a mention in speculations as to why the marks of some independent school students are not as high in their first year at university as might be expected from their Year 12 results.

As to resilience, Australian research on university degree completions by school attended shows that students educated in independent schools are 2.8 times more likely to complete their university degree than students educated in government schools, even after taking into account their parents’ level of education – one of the most significant factors linked to university attainment. Non-government school students are also 1.4 times more likely to complete post-graduate courses.

Significantly, students who attended non-government schools are 1.5 times more likely to graduate from a Go8 research-intensive university, or complete degrees in medicine or law. These completion rates are solid evidence that students in Australian independent schools are well able to meet the rigours of university life and succeed in their tertiary studies.

It is of course always a disappointment to me to see the value of independent schooling called into question, but especially so when researchers fall back on unsubstantiated ‘suggestions’ to explain their findings.

Without evidence to back them up, it seems to methat such suggestions tell us far more about the unexamined biases of those who make them than they do about the how and why of students’ university performance. And they tell us we need more and better research, not to settle the ‘public versus private’ debate, but to inform ways to support all students to achieve their best – and that includes completing their degrees.

Competition can be a great incentive to performance but, to get the most out of university, students must be encouraged to compete not just against each other, but to compete against themselves.

It is the continual striving to extend their personal best that gives students the real ‘edge’ at university, and that’s a mindset all schools should be helping to develop in their students.
 

Geoff Ryan is Chief Executive of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia. He was Principal of Westbourne Grammar School in Melbourne for 20 years.
 

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