Red faces at the Higher Education and Funding Council of England (HEFCE) as our professional association, HMC, confronts them with a rookie error in the report that they published in early September. When they published the report, the data seemed to point to a significant and unfavourable difference in degree outcomes between students from the independent sector and their state sector peers. Now – aha! – it turns out that the headline statistic published by the HEFCE contained a basic mathematical error. Those interpreting the report had got their columns mixed up, claiming initially that 73% of independent school entrants received a 1st or 2:1 compared to 82% from state schools and 6th form colleges – in fact it is the other way round.
You can make your own conclusions about what the HEFCE wanted the research to show, but a clue might lie in the fact that the HEFCE silently changed the mistake in the numerical appendix to its online document but not its overall interpretation in the body of the report which continues to maintain that evidence points to generally higher performance achieved by state school graduates compared with independent school peers entering with like for like grades.
Since the error came to light, Professor Alan Smithers from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham has analysed the report further and produced his own paper, which shows that students’ performance in entry qualifications is the single strongest predictor of subsequent degree performance, which is why the proportion of students getting a 1st or 2:1 degree is much higher for independent school students – 82% versus 73% for the record.
Although it was HMC who did the heavy lifting with this and made HEFCE admit its error to the media, hats off to the eagle-eyed parent who spotted the error and alerted a member school.