With exam season in full swing and discussions about the future of GCSEs and A-levels continuing, new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published today by the Department for Education, investigates the role played by secondary schools – and the subjects and qualifications for which pupils study while they are there – in explaining whether students go to university and how well they do once there.
The report uses rich administrative data linking all secondary school pupils in England to the university records of those who attend somewhere in the UK. This data tells us which schools pupils attend and provides us with very detailed measures of attainment at the end of secondary school, including the qualifications and subjects each pupil studies and the grades they receive. This is linked to information on whether students go to university and if so where. It also follows them through university, allowing us to see whether they drop-out within two years, complete their degree within five years and graduate with a first or a 2.1 conditional on completing their degree.
We find substantial differences in the likelihood of going to university on the basis of secondary school characteristics. For example, 62% of pupils in the top quintile of school performance (those with the highest proportions of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE) go to university at age 18 or 19, compared to just 17% of those in the bottom quintile of school performance. The differences are even starker if we focus on those attending “high status” institutions (which we define as Russell Group institutions, plus those with similarly high research quality; 41 institutions in total). Pupils in the top quintile of school performance are 11 times more likely to attend a high status institution than pupils in the bottom quintile group.
Of course it is no surprise that pupils are more likely to go to university if they attend schools where both they and their classmates get good GCSEs and A-level results. Indeed once we account for pupil characteristics and performance at GCSE and A-level, we can explain virtually all of the difference in participation rates between pupils attending different types of schools. And by no means all of this is due to the characteristics of pupils before they reach secondary school, highlighting the importance of secondary school as a time to intervene to increase HE participation rates. Indeed, our work highlights the particular importance of ensuring that pupils from all schools make the right choices over the subjects and qualifications they take at GCSE, and that they maximise their chances of getting good grades at this level.
There is also an important association between school performance and HE outcomes. Pupils who went to the highest performing secondary schools are nearly 7 percentage points less likely to drop out within two years, just over 10 percentage points more likely to complete their degree within five years and nearly 18 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or a 2.1 than pupils who went to the lowest performing secondary schools.
But once we account for differences in background characteristics and a rich set of measures of attainment at the end of secondary school, the raw relationships reverse: pupils from high performing schools are now more likely to drop out, less likely to complete their degree and less likely to be awarded a first or a 2:1 than similar pupils with similar attainment from low performing schools. This remains true if we compare pupils from different schools who attend the same universities and study the same subjects.
These differences are even starker if we compare pupils from selective and non-selective state and independent schools. For example, when comparing pupils with the same background characteristics and prior attainment, studying at the same universities in the same subjects, those from selective independent schools are 2.6 percentage points more likely to drop out, 6.4 percentage points less likely to complete their degree and 10.3 percentage points less likely to graduate with a first or a 2:1 than pupils from non-selective community schools.
These results provide some evidence that, amongst apparently similar students with similar GCSE and A level results, those from less effective state schools may on average have higher ‘potential’ than those from private, selective or more effective state schools. Whilst recognising that this is a result that holds on average and of course not for every student, this is something which universities may want to be aware of in setting entry requirements.