Private-school students 'sleepwalking into predictable careers'

Affluent pupils tend to shun ‘new-economy’ opportunities to choose same courses and universities as their parents, says Ucas head

The head of Britain’s university admissions system has accused private-school students of “sleepwalking” through their education, shunning hi-tech subjects such as robotics and bio-engineering in favour of “predictable” careers, following many of their parents into law, banking and the media.

“I worry about a sub-section of society which is sleepwalking through an identikit education experience into an off-the-peg life, that mirrors what generations of the affluent classes have aspired to,” Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the Ucas admissions service, told a meeting of leading independent school headteachers.

Curnock Cook told the annual meeting of the Headmasters and Mistresses Conference (HMC) in St Andrews that their pupils stuck to a narrow range of courses and careers, often at the same universities their parents attended.

She said that of the 30,000 different courses on offer at British universities, half of all privately educated students applied to just 1,500 of them.

“I probably don’t need to tell you what the most popular subjects are: medicine, history, economics, English, law, geography, psychology – you can fill in the gaps,” she said.

“It seems that not only are your students going to the same universities that their parents went to, but they are also studying the same subjects that their parents did.

“And if I were to believe a recent report from one independent school head, your students and their parents think that the only jobs worth shooting for are in medicine, law, financial services and the media.”

The Ucas head said independent school pupils were “rather slow on the uptake” when it came to studying modern disciplines such as software engineering, artificial intelligence and creative design.

Only 13% of independent school pupils took degree courses in “new economy” subjects, compared with 26% of those educated in the state sector.

“These predictable course choices, to the same old universities, are not always the right choices for all of your pupils,” Curnock Cook said.

“Maybe some of them should give some serious thought to choosing to study something different, somewhere else.”

Chris Ramsey, the HMC’s universities spokesman and head of King’s School, Chester, said it was true that fewer students from independent schools went on to university to study newer, digital media-related subjects.

“However, all commentators agree that the most important thing is not what you study at university, but that the student is passionate about their discipline, relishes learning and develops as a thinker,” he said.

Curnock Cook reassured the independent school heads that their pupils would still be able to gain places at leading universities, despite the recent increase in state-educated pupils applying.

“Students with good A-level grades are likely to be in more demand than ever at high-tariff universities. I can confidently predict that as your students fill in their Ucas forms over the next few weeks, they will be love-bombed with offers,” she said.

“Perhaps, instead of worrying about social engineering, independent schools should encourage their students to be independent-minded, and to develop a sense of future self that breaks the mould a bit.”


Richard Adams in St Andrews

The GuardianTramp

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