Have you been introduced to a teenager recently? Did they grunt, look at the floor and seem not to know what to say to this grown-up who they didn’t know well? Or did they shake your hand and smile and make an fair attempt to look interested? Chances are – prepare for massive, outrageous and probably insulting generalisation here – the teenager who knew what to say goes to a private school. Apologies to all the confident, well-mannered state school-educated pupils (or parents thereof) who have just been offended.

This is a major generalisation, but bear with… If, hypothetically, we compared the GCSE results of those two teenagers we met, they might well be the same. If we compared the educational background of the parents of those two teenagers, it might well be the same.  If we compare the way those two have been brought up, it might well be similar. But it is an observable truth that an independent school education seems to give its pupils an extra, indefinable something – a way of dealing with the (largely adult) world that gives them an edge, and will go on giving them an edge as they move into the world of work.

And here’s some evidence. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which looked into the earnings of 75,000 British graduates who graduated in 2007, found that students who had gone to an independent school earned more than their state school fellow-graduates – within months of leaving university. After three and a half years those from private schools were already being paid more than 17 per cent above those educated in the state sector (that translates to earnings of just under £29,000 on average for former independent school pupils, over £4,500 above the earnings of graduates who’d gone to state schools).

But surely, you cry, these young people have the benefit of an expensive education which has given them better exam results which in turn get them into better universities and thence the top-earning jobs? True, pupils from independent schools are three times more likely to achieve the AAB grades at A-level which can attain them a place at a prestigious Russell Group university.

The private school edge

However, the IFS study found that even when graduates had been to the same prestigious university, or taken exactly the same degree which would lead them into a high-earning profession (law or banking, for example), the privately educated still earn 6.7 per cent more, or around £1,500 in pay.

What is it that’s giving these graduates the x-factor? The IFS report comments: ‘Such unobserved characteristics may include ability, social skills, determination or indeed a range of other skills not properly measured in our model.’ It notes that schools may influence students’ choice of subject or career, and in turn their earning power, and adds: ‘An alternative explanation is that private schooling provides access to social and cultural capital (e.g. networks) which are helpful to individuals in securing well paid jobs’.

All this is undoubtedly true. Even before they take A levels, high-flying independent school students are 9% more likely to be offered a place by Oxford University than state sector peers. They have a broader education and are tutored in how to face the attack of an Oxford interview. But that confidence factor (‘social skills’ is a simplistic phrase) is also vital. Somehow, these schools manage to instil an understanding of how to deal with the world – how to get on – which state schools don’t often achieve. The question is, how can state education emulate this success?




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.