Private Schooling in the UK in the 21st Century: Participation and Outcomes

Project Lead

Francis Green

Project Team

Morag Henderson
Golo Heneseke
Jake Anders


Private school pupils form a relatively small proportion of the pupil population, but their influence extends far more widely. British private schooling is quite unusual in international comparison, combining both very high fees and only a low level of public subsidy through tax reliefs. From earlier studies we know that private school alumni educated in the 20th century on average achieved well in public exams and had substantially greater success in the labour market, when compared with similar pupils who attended state schools. 

In the last 30 years the private schools have changed enormously, as has the economy. School fees have risen by around three times in real terms. The pupil-teacher ratio has been halved, physical plant and equipment greatly improved, and a broader range of extra-curricular sport and cultural activities is supported, aiming to instil broader outcomes of cultural capital, more than just a high academic achievement. Systems of management have been modernised. 

There have been no comprehensive studies, however, of changes in private school participation and of the value-added delivered by modernised private schooling in the 21st century. The aim of this project is to investigate two key related aspects of the role of private schools in Britain in the 21st century: the choice of a private school, and the association of private schooling with educational outcomes and with subsequent labour market and broader outcomes in early adulthood. 

We will look at three sets of questions:

1. Participation: 
Has participation in private schooling become more (or less) socially fluid? Specifically, we shall ask: has the relationship between family income and participation been changing over recent years? Has the inter-generational persistence been shifting? Does grammar school proximity make a difference? What reasons do parents give for choosing private schooling? 

2. Educational outcomes:
What are the educational outcomes associated with private secondary schooling, compared with those from state schooling?

3. Early adulthood outcomes:
What are the labour market outcomes (employment, occupational status, pay), personal outcomes (physical activity, well-being) and external benefits (social trust, charitable activities) associated with private school participation at secondary level? To what extent are these outcomes accounted for by the educational outcomes, and how important are social networks?

To answer these questions, we will use two ESRC investments, the Millennium Cohort Survey (MCS) and the Next Steps survey. We will supplement these with data from the annual Living Costs and Food Survey (LCFS), and the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS). We will estimate the determinants of choosing private schooling at secondary level. Key explanatory factors will be parental income, family and pupil characteristics, and ease of access to a grammar school. Attention will be given to those who switch school-types at the transition between primary and secondary levels.

Building on this analysis of private school choice, we will then use statistical methods to estimate the association of private school attendance with educational outcomes from secondary school. We will compare outcomes for private and state educated persons from similar socio-economic backgrounds and with similar prior achievements. Finally, we shall produce estimates of the association of private education with labour market and broader outcomes at age 25. 

Together, our findings will provide a scientific picture of the contemporary role of private schooling in Britain. We expect this picture to be useful, both to those involved with the private school sector (parents, advisers, and the schools themselves), and to scholars and policy-makers interested in the wider implications. There is ongoing debate about the schools’ charitable status and the “public benefit” obligations that this brings, and about barriers to social mobility.

Project Results and Outputs: 

Prof Francis Green recently made some videos about his research, they are free to access within some institutions, or you can subscribe to Faculti and watch:

The influence of private primary schooling on children’s learning

Self-Evaluation, Aspirations, Valued Social Networks, and the Private School Earning Premium in the UK

Free Schools in England: ‘Not Unlike other Schools’?

ESRC Research Grant ES/R003335/1

Theme 3 Projects