Social mobility: why does private school give you such a leg up?

Already at the head of life’s line-up. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Ever since John Major declared his shock at the dominance of the privately educated throughout Britain’s “upper echelons of power”, there has been a brighter spotlight shone on the way top professions in society are dominated by a selective elite.

Addressing this problem has never been more important for UK social mobility. With the re-shaping of the economy towards services, it’s predicted that four out of five future jobs will be in these professions, making them key to the future of social mobility.

Alan Milburn’s 2012 report into fair access to the professions showed 43% of barristers, 54% of chief executives, 51% of top medics and 54% of leading journalists attended private schools. Nationally, only 7% of children attend private schools.

Research from the UCL Institute of Education and the University of Cambridge found that in a raw comparison, graduates who had attended private schools were 32% more likely to gain a “high-status” job – defined as the “higher managerial, administrative or professional” occupations – than state-school graduates from similar family types.

Even when accounting for other factors that could be driving this difference – such as a person’s grades in school, the university they attended, the course and qualification they got, or their age and gender – people who went to private school were still 8% more likely to access a high-status job after leaving university.

A new report from the Sutton Trust and upReach charities has taken the analysis a step further. The report found that six-months after finishing university, private school graduates in high-status jobs are earning £670 per year more than those from the state sector in the same high-status positions, even after taking into account any differences in age, gender, university attended and degree obtained. Three years later, this gap has grown such that a private-school graduate is on average earning £2,198 per year more than the comparable state-school graduate.

Elite firms look for ‘soft skills’

What is it about private schooling that causes this to happen? When it comes to getting a job and progressing up pay scales, there are always other factors apart from grades that are difficult to measure, such as self-confidence, assertiveness, ambition, determination or communication skills. These may differ between the average private and state school students and may be driving the difference.

This is consistent with other research from the Sutton Trust which has found that applicants to high-status jobs from less-privileged backgrounds lack self-confidence. Recent research from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCP) looking at recruitment to elite law, accountancy and financial services firms also identified that the differences in the non-academic skills of graduates from different school types played a key role in explaining different access to jobs and career progression.

These elite firms look to recruit and promote “talent”. Their definitions incorporate the sort of non-academic skills that are not lacking in private school students, but can be lacking even among the most academically able state-school students.

Gap in grades remains stark

There are policies that can help break down these barriers. The first requirement is to close the gap in attainment between different types of school. IFS research comparing the pay of state and privately educated people across all professions, found a 12% pay gap, half of which can be explained by prior attainment and the university subsequently attended. So, much of the gap is down to what happens in school.

The SMCP research also supports previous work that suggests attending “elite” universities and the course studied is becoming more and more important for access to top professions and higher pay. If we look at the difference in A-level attainment in the sort of “facilitating” subjects (such as maths, sciences and languages) that are preferred by the elite institutions, there is a suggestion that the gap between state and private school is narrowing.

Among 18-year-olds in 2004, 7.8% of state-school students had A*-B in three or more of these A-level subjects, compared with 21.6% of private school students. By 2010 the gap had closed slightly, largely due to a dip in independent schools’ performance, but the proportion of state-school students attaining the grades required to access elite universities remains constant.

Unsurprisingly then, there is little evidence that the gap in attendance at elite universities has changed over time for students from comparable family backgrounds who attend state and private schools. The proportion of children who go to elite universities from the highest income group (which it is assumed includes private school attendees) was approximately 28% in 2010-11, compared to 12% for the next highest income group. However, this 16 percentage point gap is all but eliminated when researchers take into account how students did at A-level.

More mentoring, earlier

So, the big question is how to improve the A-level results of students from state schools. After examining what can help predict better performance at A-level for bright but less advantaged students, research from Oxford University has suggested a series of policies to help boost performance by bright but less advantaged students. These range from access to high-quality pre-school, daily homework, encouraging reading for pleasure, and educationally enriching activities outside of school, to greater guidance regarding the choice of subjects at GCSE and A-level likely to pay the highest future dividends in university access and beyond.

The need for greater guidance, advice and mentoring for state-school pupils is also endorsed by the Sutton Trust research into recruitment for the financial services sector. These policy recommendations are now being implemented in a project that began in 2014 in which four major banks – Barclays, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Lloyds – are providing “end-to-end” support to young people from state schools. They will get help to develop non-academic skills both at school and university and then receive mentoring while in the job.

These closer links between state schools and professions was also identified by Milburn, who suggested that work experience placements, internships and university sandwich-year courses can all be routes to improve the transition for state students from school, through university and into the “upper echelons” of British society.