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  Educational Achievement and Social Class : The Importance of Private Education

Date last edited :08/09/2018


Click here for The Guardian Long Read [audio]. The Case for Abolishing Private Schools New link added September 2018

Click here and here  and here for articles comparing the A Level performance of Independent  school students and state school students  New links added August 2017

Click here for TES article on increased representation of state school pupils at Oxbridge ...although they are still under-represented. New link added August 2017

Click here [BBC] and here {Independent]  and here [ HEFCE  full report] for coverage that state school students pupils achieve higher class university degrees than private school students with identical A level grades. New Link added March 2014

Click here for Guardian article [2008] by David Kynaston: The Road to Meritocracy is blocked by Private Schools  New link added March 2014

Click here for New Statesman article by David Kynaston and George Kynaston : Education's Berlin Wall: The Private Schools Conundrum. New Link added April 2014

Click here for Newsnight video clip on Private Education

Click here for The Headmasters' and Headmistresses Conference Website

Click here for the Independent Schools' Council Website

Click here for a link to BBC coverage of Charity Commission issues with Public School financing.

Click here for BBC coverage of Government order of a review of charity rules for private schools.

Click here for the Guardian Newspaper's coverage of Private Education

Click here for Guardian coverage of Oxbridge and Elitism

Click here for Guardian coverage of Sutton Trust Report on Private Schools'  bursaries.

Click here for Daily Telegraph coverage of Private Education

Click here and follow the subsequent link for an undergraduate essay in support of banning private schools with a range of comments, for and against.

Click here for the Daily Telegraph on Private Education and the 2011 GCE Advanced Level Results 

Click here and scroll down for Guardian data on 2011 GCE Advanced Level Subject Choice and Results

Click here for brief audio item by Sir Peter  Lampl and here for a brief video item by George Monbiot

Click here for a recent BBC report on Private Education and University access. "Don' handicap private pupils," says leading headmaster.

Click here and here and here for 2012 data and discussion of  University entrance rates of state school and private school pupils and on University entrance rates for pupils eligible for free school meals . NEW LINKS added August 2013

Click here for BBC coverage of good GCSE results at Private schools 2012/13 NEW LINK added September 2013

Click here and here for BBC coverage of OFSTED Head's critical view of relationships between state and private education sectors .NEW LINKS added October 2013

Click here for Fiona Millar on the charitable status of Private Schools NEW LINK added October 2013     


Document Contents


In 2007/08 there were 33,661 schools in the UK educating 9.7 million pupils. About 6-7% of these pupils [about 580,000] attended one of the 2527 non-maintained mainstream schools in the UK. Non-maintained schools are schools which  receive their financial resources not from Central government but from fees paid by the parents/guardians of their pupils. The following table provides fairly recent information on different types of schools in the UK but for more recent information on England click here and refer to additional tables.

In January 2013 there were 24, 328 schools in England of which 2,413  were Independent Schools

Table 3.3          
Schools: by type of school1          
United Kingdom         Numbers
  1990/91 2000/01 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08
Public sector mainstream schools2          
   Nursery 1,364 3,228 3,349 3,326 3,273
   Primary 24,135 22,902 22,156 21,968 21,768
   State-funded secondary3 4,797 4,352 4,244 4,232 4,209
      of which, specialist schools4 . 523 2,381 2,611 2,799
      of which, admissions policy5          
         Comprehensive 3,696 3,443 3,424 3,398 3,304
         Selective 222 231 233 233 233
         Modern 171 145 115 113 172
         City technology colleges 7 15 11 10 5
         Academies . . 27 46 83
         Not applicable 701 518 434 432 412
All public sector mainstream schools 30,296 30,482 29,749 29,526 29,250
Non-maintained schools 2,501 2,397 2,455 2,486 2,527
Special schools6 1,830 1,498 1,416 1,391 1,378
Pupil referral units . 338 481 489 506
All schools 34,627 34,715 34,101 33,892 33,661
1 See Appendix, Part 3: Main categories of educational establishments.    
2 Excludes special schools and pupil referral units (PRUs).
3 From 1993/94 excludes sixth-form colleges in England and Wales, which were reclassified as further education colleges on 1 April 1993.
4 Numbers of specialist schools in England, operational from September of each academic year shown.
5 See Appendix, Part 3: School admissions policy.
6 For children with special educational needs. Includes maintained (the majority) and non-maintained sectors.
Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families; Welsh Assembly Government; Scottish Government; Northern Ireland Department of Education


These non-maintained schools may be described as fee paying schools , independent schools, private schools or ,as in the case of the most prestigious  fee paying secondary schools, as public schools. . The best known private secondary schools are usually members of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) originally formed in 1871. There are currently about 250 such schools in the UK and the Republic of Ireland  [with about 60 internationally affiliated schools] and they include Eton, Harrow, Cheltenham Ladies College, Rugby and  Winchester. About 30 Head Teachers of state schools are also associate members of this organisation. In addition the Independent Schools Council represents approximately 1300 First, Middle and Secondary schools including those which are members of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference.

Whereas the most prestigious private secondary schools  aim to prepare most of their pupils for Higher Education, often at Oxford, Cambridge and other high status universities , other private schools such as the well known Summerhill School see the functions of education in  a rather different light giving much more attention to their pupils'  individual freedoms in the hope and belief that this can lead to fuller individual self-development..

Some  students at fee paying schools actually live in at the schools as boarders but many fee paying schools cater only for day pupils as , for example at the Norwich High School for Girls and the Norwich  School. . Most of these  schools have traditionally  been single-sex schools, although many have become co-educational in  recent years . Data from a 2009 [???] Sutton Trust report illustrate that fees are high: average annual day school fees are about 10,000  p.a. for day school pupils and about 22,000 for boarding pupils,. These schools are set up as educational charities which qualifies them for preferential tax treatment but at the same time obliges them to offer some grants to some pupils to help toward the costs of school fees but the Sutton Trust data illustrate that total financial assistance with fees is only 6% of fee income  so  that it is on balance unsurprising that it is relatively affluent parents and parents who themselves were educated in private schools who are most  likely to opt to have their children educated privately although much is made of the extent to which less affluent families are prepared to make great financial sacrifices in order to pay for private education. . Click here and here for relevant data.

[ In the early 1980s the then Conservative Government introduced an Assisted Places Scheme , the Government would provide financial help with private school fees  to parents  who could not afford the fees if their children  passed a private school  Entrance Examination  but the Labour Government, elected in 1997 phased out the Assisted Places Scheme and has redirected the money saved into State Education. Subsequently Labour governments have introduced a range of initiatives designed to increase collaboration between the state and private sectors of education.]

Click here for recent data on comparison of Advanced Level results in different types of schools and colleges . Students might usefully  read the SFR Report and also find supplementary tables 1a and 1c especially useful. .I have constructed the following summary table from these sources but students should actually consult the original sources if they wish to study the data in detail.

Percentages of A Level entrants achieving  very good Advanced Level results in different types of schools and colleges 2012-13

  % of students achieving 3A-A* grades or better at A Level or Applied Single/Double Award A level % of students achieving Grades AAB or better  at A Level or Applied Single/Double award A level % of students achieving AAB or better at A Level of which at least two are in Facilitating Subjects % of students achieving AAB or better at A level of which all are in  facilitating subjects
All state funded Schools 10.5% 17.6% 13.4% 8.6%
All Local Authority Funded Schools 8.5% 14.8% 11.2% 7.2%
Sponsored Academies 4.0% 7.6% 5.3% 3.6%
Converter Academies 12.9% 21.1% 16.2% 10.2%
All Comprehensive Schools 7.9% 14.2% 10.5% 5.4%
All Secondary Modern Schools 1.7% 4.1% 1.9% 0.9%
All Selective State Schools 26.7% 39.7% 32.2% 21.0%
Independent Schools 29.5% 42.6% 35.4% 22.6%
Further Education Sector 7.7% 13.7% 8.7% 5.0%

 On the basis of these data we may note the following main points.

  1. Entrants from the Independent Schools were most likely to gain high grade A level passes.
  2. However the differences in achievement of high grades as between Independent Schools entrants  and State Selective Schools entrants was very small.
  3. Within the State Sector entrants from Secondary Modern Schools were least likely to gain high grade A level passes.
  4. Converter Academies' entrants were more likely to gain high grade passes than all other types of state school other  Selective State Schools.
  5. However there is an interesting detail here in that some Converter Academies are actually former Selective State Schools [ i.e. former Grammar Schools] and they are legally allowed to retain Selection. That is : some Converter Academies are Selective Schools and some are not and some Selective Schools are Converter Academies and some are not!


Click here for further interesting statistics from the Guardian. 


Ex-public school pupils [mainly male pupils] in the  professions

The following table, although now a little dated,  gives an indication of the extent to which people in Elite occupations have received a private education.


Occupations: % from public schools




Conservative Cabinets



85(1990) 64 (1990-97)

Labour Cabinets

33 (1974-79)



Conservative MPs




Labour MPs




LibDem MPs




Senior Navy



Senior Army 86.1 N/A N/A
Senior Judiciary 80.2 84 84(1991)
Bank directors N/A 70 N/A
Senior Civil Servants N/A 49 N/A
Permanent Secretaries 84(1974-1979) 73.5(1979-97) N/A

Sources: Figures for 1971 (Scott 1991), for 1984 (Reid et al., 1991) for 1990s - judiciary (Byers 1991; The Guardian 12.10.1992) Marsh (in British Politics Today 2002), MPs1987 and 2001(The British General Election1987;2001 Butler and Kavanagh)

[  David Marsh (In British Politics Today(2002)does provide recent statistics for the Private School membership of Major and Blair cabinets and for the % of Permanent Secretaries educated at Private Schools. I have highlighted the Marsh and Butler and Kavanagh figures in red.]

It is interesting to note that privately educated people are more heavily represented in Conservative Cabinets than in Labour Cabinets although they are significantly represented in the latter.

Also the final two rows on Senior Civil Servants and Permanent Secretaries show that this type of data must be interpreted carefully. Marsh's statistics for Permanent Secretaries in 1979-97 are much higher than the 1984 figure for "senior civil servants". This is because there are several hundred "senior civil servants" but only about 25 Permanent Secretaries and these Permanent Secretaries are the most senior of all senior civil servants. They are the official heads of the 25 or so Government Departments and, they are shown to be very likely to have been educated privately. (It is sometimes argued that these Permanent Secretaries sometimes have more power than the cabinet ministers ultimately responsible for the Government departments. I shall not pursue this issue here!)

More recent data relating to the educational backgrounds of those in elite occupations may be found in the recent report : Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions [2009] chaired by Labour MP  [and former senior Minister] Alan Milburn. This is a very wide ranging report analysing long term trends in social mobility within the UK and the future policies which might help to increase future rates of social mobility. Most of the data on the representation within the professions of former independent school pupils are taken from a submission of evidence by the Sutton Trust based on data from the years 2004-7.

The Sutton Trust evidence suggests that the representation of independent school pupils within the professions has in general declined slightly in the last 20 years or so but that there is some evidence that within the legal profession it has actually increased. The summary data are presented in the following diagram taken from the BBC Website.

 [You may also click here for the BBC coverage of the Alan Milburn Report which also contains a Dragon's Den Perspective[!!]  on Social Mobility.  This  BBC coverage also provides a link to the original report which is interesting but also fairly long. Also click here for the Sutton Trust evidence submission which is fairly concise]



The following arguments are made in favour of private education in general and in favour of public school education in particular:

  1.  Individuals should be allowed to spend their money as they see fit, and if they wish to pay fees for their children to be educated outside of the state system, they should be allowed to do so.
  2. Some parents may feel, rightly or wrongly, that their local state schools are relatively ineffective schools and they may opt for private education as a means of securing what they consider to be the best possible education for their children.
  3.  The Public Schools are especially well-funded both as a result of expensive fees and because they enjoy charitable status for taxation purposes and therefore they can afford smaller classes and better resources than are possible in the state sector.
  4.  Teachers' salaries in the Public Schools are higher than in the state sector, and it is argued that this [along with the academic traditions of the schools themselves] attracts better quality teachers who are often graduates of Oxford or Cambridge Universities, and, indeed, may often themselves have been educated at Public Schools .
  5.  In the top Public Schools, all students must pass a difficult Entrance Examination and so they must all have good academic potential. This means that there are few slow learners to restrict the progress of the brightest students and a competitive spirit develops among the students which helps to maintain high academic standards.
  6.  The Boarding School environment  ensures that students devote enough time to their studies while, at the same time, a wide range of extra-curricular activities is provided.
  7.  Since the parents are either paying  fees or took the trouble to apply for places via the Assisted Places scheme [when it existed] , this implies a high level of parental interest and commitment which complements the work of the schools and further improves their children's educational prospects.
  8.  As a result of the above advantages, the better fee-paying schools gain very good GCSE** and Advanced level results which place them at or close to the top of Government League tables. Fee-paying secondary school students are proportionately much more likely than state secondary school students pupils to gain places at Oxford or Cambridge Universities: thus, approximately 50% of Oxford and Cambridge students come from Private Schools, although Private Schools educate only 6% of the school population and although. the proportion of the State School pupils at Oxford and Cambridge is increasing,  they remain statistically under-represented. Whereas critics of private education argue that University selection processes may be biased in favour of private school candidates supporters argue that in recent years these biases may, if any thing have been reversed and that more private school candidates are successful because they are "the best"..
  9.  Parents choosing  Private Education often argue that they are effectively contributing to reduced rates of taxation because in the absence of Private Education governments would be obliged to spend additional money on state education in order to educate the children who are currently being educated privately.
  10.  It is agued that the Private Schools are educating a disproportionately large number of potential linguists and scientists and that without them some University departments would be in danger of collapse because of lack of students, which in turn would undermine significantly the UK's economic prospects Click here for information from the Guardian on proportions of University Science and Modern Languages students educated at Private Schools. .
  11.  Career prospects for Public School students are often very good, partly because they have been well-educated, but partly because they have been able to build important social contacts and partly because in some cases the persons responsible for appointing young people to potentially important positions will often themselves have been educated at Public Schools and may as a result tend to favour public school applicants. All of these points represent advantages of private education to those who benefit from it although the latter two points suggest that from the point of view of society as a whole the existence of private education may undermine equality of opportunity. Supporters of private education argue that in any case selection procedures have become increasingly meritocratic in recent years.

** However note that some Independent Schools do not actually teach GCSE courses which affects their league table positions adversely at GCSE level.


Click here for Alan Bennett on the need for the abolition of private schools. There is also a link to the Independent Schools' Council criticism of Mr. Bennett's views.

The following arguments are sometimes used to criticise the existence of Private education

  1.  Although the Public Schools do achieve especially good examination results which few, if any state schools can match, some private schools provide a rather mediocre education for their students.
  2.  Where private schools do achieve good examination results, this may be partly as a result of better teaching and resources, but it may also be because they select only high ability students who may well have gained equally good examination results if they had attended a state school.
  3.  It may be that, on average, teachers in the 'better' private schools are more highly qualified academically than state school teachers although  this may not be true of private schools on the whole, In any case, actual evidence on this point is not readily accessible and teaching ability does not depend solely on the teacher's academic abilities but also on such factors as communication skills and ability to enthuse the students. It may be virtually impossible to determine whether one group of teachers is  'better' than another, especially when, in any case, they must teach apparently different types of pupil. On a personal note [and hence certainly not on a necessarily representative note] I have certainly known very well qualified, effective teachers who on principle would not teach in private schools.
  4.  Boarding students may experience lack of privacy, loneliness and miss parental support, if, for example they are victims of bullying at school.
  5.  Some students might feel restricted by the boarding school environment and prefer more freedom to spend their leisure time as they personally choose.
  6.  Many private schools have until recently been single sex schools and while this enabled students to avoid the distraction of the opposite sex, it may also be more difficult for students educated in single sex schools to relate to the opposite sex in later life.
  7. It is sometimes claimed that some aspects of the 'hidden curriculum' in some private schools might be essentially conservative. Social and economic inequality might be perceived as part of the natural order of things and students may be encouraged to believe that as products of private schools, they are essentially 'better' than their state educated peers. However, many private school students may be imbued with a desire to use their education for the benefit of society as a whole, while others, like Tony Benn and Tony Blair have been attracted by left-wing, or at least, apparently left of centre politics.
  8.  The division of the UK education system into state and private sectors may itself be socially divisive, for if upper and upper middle class students are educated separately from working class students, there may be little mutual understanding and this could be a factor in subsequent industrial relation problems.
  9.  It is easier for private school students to gain entrance to Oxford and Cambridge Universities and subsequently to reach Elite positions in UK society as Cabinet Ministers, Judges, senior Civil Servants etc. This may be because private schools have provided them with a better initial education, but it may also be because of family and social connections which exist between private schools, Oxbridge and Elite occupations.
  10.  It may also be the case that when upper or upper middle class, privately educated, Oxbridge graduates reach positions of power and influence, they define the national interest in terms of the interests of their own social class and take decisions accordingly. This is an argument which is used especially in Marxist theories of the state and by some other radical but non-Marxist socialists..
  11.  I t has been argued above that a private education is not necessarily a better education, although in some cases, it may be. If it is better, it is clearly unfair that this type of education is available only to those students whole parents can afford to pay for it now that the Assisted Places Scheme has been  phased out and in any case it is doubtful whether the Assisted Places Scheme benefited the most disadvantaged pupils .
  12. .) The existence of private education may undermine meritocracy which is likely to result in economic inefficiency as well as social injustice.


In  1951 the UK did ratify the European Convention on Human Rights  [ECHR] but it was not until the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 that most of the provisions of the ECHR were incorporated into UK law. The important implication for the Private Education sector is that it is generally agreed that this Act gives individuals the right to have their children educated in private schools if they so wish which means that the abolition of private schools is currently legally impossible.. Furthermore although a UK government could in principle amend the Human Rights Act to remove the legal protection for private education this is seen as very unlikely to occur in practice which effectively safeguards the existence of the private education sector for the foreseeable future.

Most private schools have traditionally registered as charities as a result of which they have benefited from preferential tax treatment estimated to provide tax concessions worth 100Mm per year to the private education sector , an amount which supporters of private education claim is negligible by comparison with the estimated 2B per year that it would cost the government to educate the children currently educated in the private sector.

Under the terms of the 2006 Charities Act  a charity is defined as a body or trust which exists for a charitable purpose [one of which is education] and which is for the public benefit. charities. However in recent times  disputes have arisen over the criteria which are used to determine whether private schools are providing sufficient public benefit to justify their registration as charities. Private schools might in principle demonstrate public benefit by sharing facilities with state schools and/or by providing bursaries for disadvantaged pupils but in practice by June 2009  2 out of 5 test case schools had failed to qualify for charitable status  under the new criteria leading to criticisms from the Independent Schools' Council that these rulings relied " too much on the number of bursaries with fees likely to have to rise to fund subsidised places" and to the possibility that the Independent School' Council might possibly mount a legal challenge to these rulings..[ Information from BBC website.]

Subsequently the Charities Commission has announced the private schools would be given 5 years to ensure that they are operating in accordance with  the Charities Commissions'  definition of public  benefit and the Conservative Shadow Education Minister Michael Gove has stated that a future Conservative Government would encourage the Charities Commission to revise its approach to the definition of public benefit.

Meanwhile the current Labour Government has sponsored a range of initiatives designed to strengthen links between the state and private sectors of  education often [but not always] designed to improve the opportunities of gifted and talented pupils within the state sector and to increase university applications.  Some will argue that anything which increases educational opportunities must be good thing while others argue that there should be improved provision for pupils who are struggling in the state sector and/or that gifted and talented pupils within the state sector can flourish there quite nicely without the assistance of the private sector. Meanwhile , however, these initiatives should help private schools to retain their charitable status for tax purposes.

You may follow these developments via the following links to the BBC , Daily Telegraph and Guardian sites .

Link One BBC

Link Two BBC

Link Three  Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph provides information on the Conservatives' attitude to this issue.

Link Four Recent Guardian Information.

And so it goes on.!!!

In this document I have tried to describe the overall significance of the non-maintained, private sector of education and to list the main arguments which are used in the support or the criticism of the continued existence of private education. To extend your sociological knowledge and understanding of the nature of private education you should relate this topic to the sociological analyses of class, ethic and gender differences in educational achievement  and also apply the differing sociological perspectives on the functions of formal education systems to the analysis of the private education sector.

I hope that the following assignment will help you to consolidate and extend your knowledge and understanding of this topic.

  1. How many schools existed in the UK in 2007/08?
  2. How many of these schools were [a] maintained or state schools and [b] non-maintained or private schools?
  3. What percentage of school pupils were educated in private schools in 2007/08?
  4. What are the approximate average annual private school fees for [a] private day school pupils and [b] private boarding school pupils?
  5. Briefly compare the A level results of Comprehensive schools, Grammar Schools and Independent Schools?
  6. Briefly give three possible reasons why, on average, Independent School A level results are comparatively good.
  7. What does the recent report "Unleashing Aspiration" tell us about the school background of high status professional people?
  8. How might the existence of private schools affect relationships between social class and educational achievement ?
  9. What do you understand by the terms "meritocracy" and " social mobility"?
  10. Does the existence of private schools restrict meritocracy and upward social mobility?
  11. [This is not an easy question and since little information is available in the textbooks it will require quite a bit of thought from you which I am sure you will enjoy! ] The functions of formal education systems are analysed from different sociological perspectives. Write separate paragraphs on  how  private schools might be analysed from the following sociological perspectives:
    • The Functionalist Perspective
    • The New Right Perspective
    • The Social Democratic Perspective
    • The Marxist Perspective
    • The Feminist Perspective
    • The Interactionist Perspective
    • The Postmodernist Perspective:

Good luck!