Recently I read a newspaper article which quoted the statistic that 96% of privately educated students go on to university compared to just 39% of students educated in the state system. Scanning the comment section below, a fair number of readers suggested that this disparity was mainly down to the growing cost of university. This sounds logical, but UCAS recently published a report suggesting that applications to university from some of the most affluent areas in the UK had actually fallen, whereas Rochdale, an area with one of worst unemployment rates in the country, saw a 6% increase in applications on the previous year.
So what is it about the independent sector that consistently ensures such a high percentage of their students go on to study at university? And are these students making the right choices, or are they just following the herd? I’m the product of an independent school education myself; these are my reflections on the topic.
Firstly, and in my eyes the biggest influence, are the students’ parents.
These parents decide to pay vast sums of money each year in the belief that their children are receiving the best possible start in life. With any investment, you expect a return. Besides the extra-curricular advantages and the exceptional pastoral care that a private education often offers, in parents’ minds the success of this investment is based on what grades their child achieves and in particular which university they go on to. I have many friends who felt the pressure of parental expectation on determining their next steps in life, even if university was not the best choice for them.
For further evidence of parental pressure when it comes to educational outcomes, look at the extraordinary rise in the number of tutoring agencies cropping up to meet the demand of parents wanting to give their child the edge. This worrying trend has seen children as young as five receiving extra-tuition, leaving one headmaster to write to the entire school warning them of the damage this approach could have on a student’s progression through life.
The second great influence on private school students’ applications to universities is the schools themselves. Pick up a prospectus from any independent school and I guarantee that you will find ‘Academic Excellence’ combined with ‘Oxbridge Success’ on the first couple of pages. Schools market themselves by such criteria, aiming to enhance their brand in an increasingly international market, where students are specifically sent to a UK school so that they can go on to study at one the country’s top universities. So the reality is that these schools expect their students to go on to university.
In my experience university is almost fetishized by the staff at these schools. Competition amongst teachers and between departments is prevalent; after leaving my school, I was asked by my old schoolteacher to fill out a questionnaire about the course I was studying at university, with the aim of placing it on the relevant department’s walls under the banner ‘University success’. I suppose the reality is that if you want students to work hard and achieve good grades, you need to give them a clear goal to work towards.
The third major propagandist for university at private schools is peer pressure. In any school peer pressure plays a very important role in deciding what you want to do next. If all your friends are going on to university, chances are so will you. In my year, I estimate that 20% of students did their research; the other 80% (myself included) simply went to university because that was what was expected of us. I’m ashamed to admit that like many of my peers, I did little research even though we had a full time careers adviser, and simply chose a city where many of my friends were going.
This approach often backfires. I have a number of friends who decided to go to university because it was the ‘done thing’ even though they were clearly not suited to it from the offset. Eventually they dropped out or scraped mediocre degrees. Did this set them up for the working world? Not in the slightest.. Alternatives should be considered. Perhaps a change in approach is already starting – last week Hilary French, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, recently urged a change in attitudes from both parents and teachers in the private sector, to do away with their ‘sniffy’ attitudes towards apprenticeships and embrace them as viable alternatives to universities.
Although I am pleased I went to university, I regret not carrying out thorough and independent research on where I was going or where it was going to take me. Had my school requested that every student considering university completed the university choosing tool Unifrog in advance of sending off our UCAS forms, I am convinced that many more of my peers would have made more successful choices.
Tim Lowe works for Unifrog
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